JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA—I'm an avowed space nerd who would love nothing more than to see a human land on Mars during my lifetime. So last night's debate was the most entertaining for me of the unending series in this year's election. Thanks to vapid moderation from CNN's Wolf Blitzer, the majority of the debate was devoted to personal life questions better suited for Oprah's couch than a debate stage. He ended the night by asking the candidates why they were the most electable candidate, essentially requesting each of them to offer a shorter version of their usual stump speeches.
One of the few moments where the candidates actually engaged on policy was when the discussion turned to space; specifically the bold vision Newt Gingrich had announced the day before during an event along the Space Coast. Gingrich defended his plan for a lunar colony and a Northwest Ordinance for Space while his opponents harrumphed, claiming it was impractical during a time when Republicans are eager to see every component of the federal budget slashed.
I ran into former Florida Attorney General and state chair for the Gingrich campaign Bill McCollum in the spin room following the debate. I overheard him explain to another reporter that topics like the economy and health care will define the election in the fall. Since space policy was notably absent on that list, I asked him why Gingrich has devoted so much time looking toward the moon rather than more terrestrial matters.
"He has a great vision for space," McCollum said. "He's written about it for years, he believes in it deeply. It's very important to Florida, a large part of our state." But McCollum also thought it was an argument that should hold national appeal, even during times of economic distress. "The other candidates don't get it," he said. "They think this election is all about frugality and saving money. They miss the vision. They miss the hope and opportunity of the society of Ronald Reagan that Newt Gingrich feels and understands. It's not good enough to simply say, 'we're going to cut spending, cut spending,' you need to have a vision for the next generation."
I might find the inspirational line convincing, but most Republican voters won't. And Gingrich's opponents eviscerated him on the topic last night. "Let's just be honest," Santorum said, "we run a $1.2 trillion deficit right now. We're borrowing 40-cents of every dollar. And to go out there and promise new programs and big ideas, that's a great thing to maybe get votes, but it's not a responsible thing when you have to go out and say that we have to start cutting programs."
Mitt Romney even returned to a variation on his infamous "I like to fire people" line. "I spent 25 years in business," Romney said. "If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, 'You're fired.'" Frugality clearly rules the day among GOP politics.
The media consensus today has settled on Gingrich as the runaway loser from the debate, weak and ineffectual in responding to his opponents. "Anything less than the type of bring-down-the-house blowout that's kept Gingrich's candidacy afloat would have been a disappointment, and Gingrich fell far short of the mark he'd set for himself," The Atlantic's Molly Ball wrote.
It's obvious that Gingrich is personally inspired by these flights of fancy. He readily rattled off the number of residents required before a lunar colony could become a state and turned nostalgic for his days reading Missiles and Rockets. Yet he was caught unaware last night when Romney informed Gingrich that his personal funds also include investments in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Perhaps Gingrich would be better situated for the upcoming primary if he had devoted more of his pre-debate preparation to the mundane matters the government handles than directing his thoughts toward the heavens.