This week, the 2012 campaign took a trip to Simi Valley, California, where the Reagan Library played host to another of the 382 debates that are scheduled between now and All Saints Day. How did it go? Basically it went like this:
MODERATORS: Hey, Mitt Romney! What do you think about this Rick Perry fellow? My, he is shiny, and Texan!
ROMNEY: I have some qualities of my own that actually distinguish me as the better candidate.
MODERATORS: Oh, ho! Rick Perry, you're not going to just sit there and take it, are you? You are Texan after all, and are supposed to have 'swagger.'
PERRY: Well, you know. I also have some qualities that I think distinguish me as the better candidate.
MODERATORS: You don't say?
PERRY: No. I did say.
OTHER CANDIDATES: Hey, are you going to ask any of us any questions?
MODERATORS: Sorry! We forgot about all you other guys! So, other guys, what do you think of Mitt Romney and/or Rick Perry?
OTHER CANDIDATES: Seriously? I mean, we came all the way here to participate in this.
MODERATORS: Sure, sure. But we established yesterday that this was the narrative. That today would be about Rick Perry and Mitt Romney? Many of us actually predicted that this is what would happen today.
OTHER CANDIDATES: We're just saying.
MODERATORS: Did we mention that Rick Perry has presided over the executions of hundreds of people?
[WILD APPLAUSE FROM THE AUDIENCE]
That was the general thrust of the evening, anyway. But when all was said and done, members of the media got what they came for -- commotion, contention, and talk of last night's troublemakers and dealbreakers. Mitt Romney's campaign team left the library certain they'd found Perry's Achilles Heel: Perry's stance on social security, which he called a "Ponzi scheme" and a "monstrous lie." And the post-game chatter reflected a consensus mindset -- Romney was the winner, because he was more "presidential" or "adult" or "electable." Did Perry really do himself in, though, given the state of the GOP base today?
Maybe not. But he definitely did himself in with Ron Paul supporters. Paul came to the debate having taken a shot at Perry's party bona fides. The Perry camp had answered by questioning Paul's own fealty to the Reagan legacy. Normally, you'd expect that to be the extent to one of these internecine contretemps, but the tension spilled over at the debate, and when the television cameras were off, photographers captured the confrontation on film. The resulting images angered the Paulites -- it all but ensured that they'd add cash to Paul's coffers. (Paul's own statements that night, however, which included the contention that a Mexican border fence could be used to fence in Americans, all but ensured that Paul wouldn't be adding too many new supporters to his ranks.)
Through it all, Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann were practically forgotten -- by the moderators and their opponent Jon Huntsman, who, having bought his way back into the media's graces by calling his opponents' "cranks," shrunk from making that charge to their faces. Newt Gingrich, as he had at the Fox debate, objected to the moderators' attempts to get the candidates to enunciate the differences between them. Like the Fox moderators, the MSNBC moderators recognized that this was a debate, not a campfire sing-a-long, and went on to demonstrate that zero was the number of craps they gave about Gingrich's criticism. (Their very next question was directed to Herman Cain, who answered by discerning the difference between himself and Romney, so the Cain Train wasn't docking at Gingrich's "let's all agree to get along" station.)
By the end of the week, Romney and Perry were cemented as frontrunners, and the other candidates were cemented as afterthoughts. And we have to say ... September 2011 is a strange time for the media to picking winners in a primary contest that's only now getting underway. Gary Johnson, a candidate who was excluded from the debate, best articulated this in a statement he proferred from exile: “If Republicans and Independents were looking for new ideas and decisive plans in the debate, they were disappointed. That’s what happens when the media decides, six months before the first ballots are cast, who should be allowed on the stage...There is much to debate in this country today, and within the Republican party. But we didn’t see or hear a debate tonight. We saw business-as-usual wrapped in a bunch of different packages.”
Johnson has a point. For the rest of this week of campaign trail sturm und drang, please feel free to enter the Speculatron for the week of September 9, 2011.