Yesterday's Three Ring (or was it four) Circus

by Michael Sean Winters

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What a day! If you are a political junkie like me, yesterday will be tough to top. From the pre-dawn news from Des Moines that Mr. Romney actually did not win the Iowa caucuses, to the interview with Gingrich’s ex-wife, to the news that Perry was dropping out of the race and endorsing Gingrich, to the fireworks in last night’s debate, it was difficult to stay on top of the news. As I went to bed last night, I thought – how am I going to digest all this in the morning for the blog? I thought a good night’s sleep would help but such an agitated day produced an agitated sleep and I awoke at 3 a.m. and tossed and turned for a couple of hours before resigning myself to the fact that I was not going to be able to go back to sleep.

The news from Iowa was the least consequential. Indeed, there was something a little pathetic about the attempts by Santorum and his campaign spokespeople to gin up some excitement about the fact that instead of coming in second by eight votes, he might have come in first by 34 votes. That “win” is not exact because, according to the head of Iowa’s Republican Party, the results from 8 precincts are missing. Missing? What can that mean? In any event, the whole story was so yesterday.

I was surprised that ABC made to the decision to run with the interviews given by Marianne Gingrich, the former Speaker’s second wife, especially only two days before the primary in South Carolina. Why now? There is an old saying: Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. And, clearly, Gingrich’s ex-wife felt scorned. But, is it really “news” that most divorces are ugly and that you have to take with a grain of salt what one former spouse says about another?

I was even more surprised that Gingrich did not have a better response to the story. In the debate, he chastised moderator John King for bringing it up, deflecting the issue, and any blame, onto the media. That is a smart strategy. But, either earlier in the day, or during the debate, Gingrich needed to communicate a bit more empathy with his former wife. He has acknowledged that he has made mistakes and sought forgiveness from God, but it might have been a good idea to seek forgiveness from Marianne too. Gingrich’s polling numbers among women voters lag about 10 points behind his numbers among men and if you don’t think that has anything to do with his marital record, you’re dreaming. He needs to find a better way to address this, something that will make him appear more gracious towards his ex-wife who is clearly still hurting. And, buried beneath the story and beneath the Speaker’s response is something really troubling: Why had he never reached out to his former wife years ago? Why had he not tried to bring some healing to that relationship? Even from a purely pragmatic political standpoint, having an ex-wife with whom one has not spoken in years is an incredible liability, and perhaps an avoidable one.

Rick Perry’s decision to quit the race and endorse Gingrich may have the most immediate, short-term effect on the race: the conservative vote will be slightly less divided than it might have been, making it easier to rob Romney of another plurality victory. Normally, endorsements don’t matter unless the endorsement is from a governor or mayor who has a patronage network of door-knockers and phone callers. Yesterday, on CNN’s ticker, it read, “Sen. Portman endorses Romney” and I thought to myself, “Who in South Carolina will be moved to vote for Mitt Romney because a first-term senator from Ohio has endorsed him?” Better to get the endorsement of Natalie Portman than Sen. Portman. But, Perry’s endorsement had three consequences: It took some of the focus away from the story about Gingrich’s ex-wife, it fed the narrative that Gingrich has the wind at his back in South Carolina and it removed a podium at the evening debate, leaving more time for the principals to engage each other.

And, engage they did. The most memorable, and damning, line in the debate came from Romney when asked if he will follow his father’s example and release several years of tax returns. Romney’s response – “maybe” – was simply awful. I winced for him. It was like the time you heard John Kerry say, “I was for it before I was against it.” Yikes. If you have already been accused of being a weathervane, the word “maybe” should never pass your lips. The rest of Romney’s response was little better. He seemed to resent the idea that he should release his taxes, that the people have a right to know a lot about someone before they entrust him with so much power, indeed that a person’s right to privacy diminishes in direct correlation to the amount of public power they seek to acquire. Perhaps Romney was hoping Gingrich would graciously come to his defense, as Romney had declined to pile on Gingrich on the subject of his prior marriage, but a tax form is not an interview with an ex-wife, it is a legal document and a precise one at that, not open to interpretation. It boggles my mind that his campaign has not explained to the candidate that he needs to get his tax returns out there and do it soon.

The highlight of the debate for me came when both Gingrich and Santorum pounded on Romney because his health care overhaul provided for government-funded abortions and placed Planned Parenthood on one of the advisory boards the reforms established. Romney replied that the courts in Massachusetts required any health care plan to cover abortion, which is true. Santorum tried to make the point that Romney should have known that unless you specifically exclude abortion coverage it will be covered, and included such a specific exclusion in the law. Santorum, or Gingrich, should have gone further saying something like: “If the cost of extending health care coverage is extending abortion coverage, the price is too high, and your failure to see that, Gov. Romney, undercuts your claim to be aggressively pro-life.”

Romney finally scored a punch on Gingrich, questioning the manner in which the former Speaker tends to claim credit for things in which he played a relatively minor role. He noted that for all Gingrich’s invocations of his work with Ronald Reagan, in his own diary, Reagan only mentioned Gingrich once. I don’t think that is a fair point, but it is an effective one. Romney also scored well with the GOP audience with his robust defense of capitalism, even though he has yet to come up with the kind of answer to questions about his tenure at Bain Capital that will satisfy non-Republicans.

The polls in South Carolina are changing all the time and none of them have been able to take account of the wild day we had yesterday. I especially would want to find polling info on how Gingrich is performing among women voters and whether Perry’s voters are planning on following his lead into the Gingrich camp or going to stay home on Saturday. Buckle up, everybody, this is going to be one hell of a ride.

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