Grading on a curve, Mitt Romney loomed in last night’s Republican debate as a veritable giant flanked by dwarfs.Good grief, what a bunch. Let’s meet Mitt’s underwhelming rivals:The girly man. On Sunday, Tim “T-Paw” Pawlenty took a verbal shot at Romney while visiting the friendly confines of Fox News. He attacked Romney’s Massachusetts health reforms as “ObamneyCare.” But on Monday, he ran away from his own attack. CNN’s John King proceeded to slap him silly: “Why would you choose those words maybe in the comfort of a Sunday show studio? Your rival is standing right there. If it was ‘ObamneyCare’ on Fox News Sunday, why isn’t it ‘ObamneyCare’ standing here with the governor?” Again Pawlenty punted. Bottom line: a candidate who attacks a rival behind his back, but backs away from direct confrontation, looks gutless. Pawlenty, in his timidity, wound up burnishing Romney’s frontrunner status. Romney was visibly pleased.The cipher. Rick Santorum was on the stage, at least physically. Otherwise, he made no impact. He was invited to disparage Romney’s history of abortion flip-flops, but demurred. He was invited to critique Pawlenty’s audacious economic plan – which foresees five percent annual growth, a figure that many economists dismiss as absurdly unrealistic – but instead he said, “I’m not going to comment on 5 percent or 4 percent.” He couldn’t even score with his boilerplate arguments. At one point, he charged that oil prices are soaring because President Obama hasn’t done enough oil drilling; the reality is, oil prices are soaring despite a huge ’09 hike in U.S. oil production. Meanwhile, Santorum boasted in his opening remarks that he has “substantial executive experience,” but that appears to be true only if you include his stint as a director of a Pennsylvania Senate committee in 1986. Or maybe his current affiliation with a law firm. Or maybe his recent Fox News gig.The dead man. Politically speaking, of course, that would be Newt Gingrich. He’s still digging his hole. Last night he tried yet again to defend/explain/deny his May characterization of the GOP’s kill-Medicare plan as “right-wing social engineering.” He insisted, yet again, that his words “were taken totally out of context.” (They were not. He volunteered the incendiary phrase.) He says that what he really meant was that such a plan would be politically tough to sell; in his words last night, “If you’re dealing with something as big as Medicare and you can’t have a conversation with the country where the country thinks what you’re doing is the right thing, you better slow down…If you can’t convince the American people it’s a good idea, maybe it’s not a good idea.” But he’s dreaming if he thinks that explanation will please conservative primary voters. They believe that killing traditional Medicare is a good idea, and they certainly don’t want to “slow down.”The provocateur. Michele Bachmann made her debut and said SHE HAS FILED HER CANDIDACY PAPERS! She said that OBAMA WILL BE A ONE-TERM PRESIDENT! She said she wants to pass THE MOTHER OF ALL REPEAL BILLS! Starting with the demolition of the EPA! Plus, she has 23 FOSTER CHILDREN! Did you know (based on three mentions) that she has 23 FOSTER CHILDREN? On pure decibels alone, she’lll be a great candidate for the hard of hearing. Of course, she also insisted, “The CBO, the Congressional Budget Office, has said that ObamaCare will kill 800,000 jobs,” which is a lie that the House Republicans have been peddling all year; in truth, the CBO never floated that statistic and said only that the job impact “will probably be small.” Elsewhere in the debate, Bachmann declared at first that if a state wants to legalize gay marriage, it should be left alone to do so, but after realizing that her principled devotion to state’s rights might not sit well with religious conservative voters, she tried three times to fix her remarks and say that of course she would welcome a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Meanwhile, she (like Santorum) beieves that rape victims should be forced to give birth, a stance that would never fly with swing voters in a general election race.The nowhere man. As soon as Bachmann opened her mouth, Herman Cain was over. There’s only room for one visceral soundbite machine on that stage, and Bachmann at least is a seasoned political hand. The pizza mogul boasts that he isn’t a politician, but the downside is, he doesn’t know anything. When he was asked, “If there are two illegal immigrants, two adults who came into this country illegally, and they have a child, should that child be considered a citizen of the United States?,” he replied, “I don’t believe so.” Read the U.S. Constitution, dude. Birthright citizenship is codified in the Fourteenth Amendment (“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States”) – and two subsequent U.S. Supreme Court rulings have affirmed the same.(By the way, Pawlenty contributed his own ignorance to the issue. He said last night: “This issue of birthright citizenship again brings up the importance of appointing conservative justices. That result is because a U.S. Supreme Court determined that that right exists, notwithstanding language in the Constitution.” In other words, he seems to think that liberal judges concocted the concept of birthright citizenship. Read some history, dude. The high court first affirmed the language of the Fourteenth Amendment in a ruling, United States v. Wong Kim Ark, way back in 1898. And those were conservative judges – the same ones who codified Jim Crow racism in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of 1896.)The geographer. Ron Paul said at one point, “We should think about protecting our borders, rather than the borders between Iraq and Afghanistan.” Iraq and Afghanistan don’t share any borders.
Dwarfs aside, I don’t mean to imply that Mitt Romney was stellar. Hardly. At one point, in obeisance to the tea party mentality, he suggested that it was wrong for the federal government to send disaster aid to Joplin and the other devastated towns. (“Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that’s the right direction. And if you can go even further and send it back to the private sector, that’s even better.”) At another point, he insisted yet again that he wasn’t wrong when he declared in 2008 that “if General Motors, Ford and Chrysler get the bailout, you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye.” (The car companies are turning a profit today.) He still insists he was right because the federal bailout cost “a lot of money,” but I wonder how well that argument will sell next year in electorally important Michigan. And his nuanced hedge on Afghanistan – “It’s time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes (from) our generals that we can hand the country over…I want those troops to come home based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals” – basically signaled that he would stay there as long as the military wants to keep fighting. Which is fundamentally backwards, because the military is supposed to be subservient to civilian control. One of his rivals had to set him straight on how it’s supposed to work: “I wouldn’t wait for my generals. I’m the commander in chief. I make the decisions. I tell the generals what to do.”So said Ron Paul. When the front runner gets corrected by a guy who’s going nowhere, that tells you plenty about the quality of the current Republican field. Romney could clearly use some top-tier competition. Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry may not necessarily fill the bill, but they probably couldn’t do worse.