Meet Mitt Romney, your 2012 Republican nominee. From the get-go he was the field's front-runner, and the suspicion that he'll become the GOP nominee for president was only confirmed after last night's circus of a debate.
When he entered the race, Texas Governor Rick Perry was considered the savior of the religious right—the only candidate with conservative social views who could still appeal to mainstream America. His campaign has floundered for the past several months, but his pockets full of campaign cash made it easy for pundits to believe he could rise to the top. That hope dissipated in the second hour of last night's CNBC debate.
Perry was in the middle of a typical anti-regulation screed when he announced he would abolish three cabinet-level departments of the executive branch. "It’s three agencies of government, when I get there, that are gone: Commerce, Education and the—what’s the, third one there—let’s see," he said. Perry proceeded to have a complete mental block for the next 50 seconds, even turning to Ron Paul for help. "You can’t name the third one?" asked CNBC moderator John Harwood.
"I would do away with the Education, the Commerce and—let’s see—I can’t. The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops." The awkwardness on stage was palpable; even Perry's opponents appeared to feel sorry for his struggles. Romney—who has begun placing robocalls in Iowa against Perry—suggested the possibility of the EPA to Perry, who said that that wasn't it (later, when he was called upon to answer another question, Perry corrected himself and said Energy was the department he'd been fumbling for). "We all felt really bad for him," Michele Bachmann said on CNBC after the debate.
The moment was all reminiscent of another former Texas governor: "There's an old saying in Tennessee—I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says, fool me once, shame on, shame on you. Fool me—you can't get fooled again." Bush's famous gaffe was amusing fodder for the Daily Show crowd. But Bush's was a mistake of style, not policy substance. The inability to list the three executive branch departments you hope to eradicate—an already outlandish claim—reveals a deeper fault.
"I'm glad I have my boots on because I sure stepped in it tonight," Perry told the press after the debate. The initial response from the conservative media was equally harsh. "Death Debate" blared Drudge Report's banner headline. "That might be the most uncomfortable moment I’ve ever witnessed in presidential politics," National Review's Rich Lowry wrote.
If Perry's campaign had taken off, perhaps this could have been a minor episode that would be dismissed. But his poll numbers have been hovering in the single digits; he's typically placed fourth in recent polls. These sorts of gaffes might be understandable—we all have our mental hiccups—but envisioning Perry debating President Barack Obama in the general election will give Republican elites nightmares, driving them further away.
With Perry's campaign all but over, no other candidate holds a chance of knocking off Romney. New allegations of sexual harassment against Herman Cain seem to emerge every other day, and he certainly didn't help his cause when last night he referred to the first female speaker of the U.S. House as "Princess Nancy"—not exactly the rhetoric of a man who treats every woman in his life with respect. His drop won't be immediate, though. Last night's crowd of Republicans weren't quite ready to abandon him, booing when moderators questioned Cain on the allegations.
Ron Paul will hold on to his dedicated supporters, never dropping far below 10 percent but never getting much higher, either. Newt Gingrich still appears to be on his book tour rather than a presidential campaign; he spent most of his time on stage yesterday questioning the premise of the moderator's questions rather than actually explaining why he deserves Republicans' votes.
It's strange to say, but former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum—more famous for his feud with sex columnist Dan Savage than anything else—might have made the sanest statement at the debate, discussing how the disappearance of American manufacturing has left behind the people who lack a college education. "That is a very important part that Republicans, unfortunately, are not talking about. We need to talk about income mobility. We need to talk about people at the bottom of the—of the income scale being able to get necessary skills and rise so they can support themselves and a family. And that’s what manufacturing does and that’s why I’m laser-beam focused on it. " Unfortunately, that has not in fact been the focus of Santorum's campaign, who just last week launched a "cultural policies" tour that trades in the most intolerant elements of the conservative base.
With no real challenger left, Romney was allowed to sit back and prepare for the general election. But even as these debates prove that the GOP nomination is his to lose, they are also showing that Romney may not have such an easy go of things when the general election rolls around. He's become more polished since 2008, but he still has his sleazy Wall Street demeanor, answering most questions with a condescending sneer. He continues to advocate against any form of real housing policy, instead favoring foreclosure. "What would you do instead? Would you decide to have … the federal government go out and buy all the homes in America?" he said last night. "That—that’s not going to happen in this country. Markets work. When you have government play its heavy hand, markets blow up, and people get hurt." With 22 percent of U.S. homes underwater—and 77,000 new foreclosure notices last month alone—saying you should just kick people out of their homes might not be as popular among the general electorate as it is among the Tea Party base.