Mitt Romney demonstrated on Thursday night that he has the ability and skills to win the Republican nomination, and in so doing presents himself as a compelling challenger to President Obama.
The entrance of Rick Perry into the race, initially seen as a serious blow to the Romney candidacy, has proved to be an extraordinary benefit. The Perry candidacy has provided a focus for the former Massachusetts governor’s efforts, and in the exchanges on Social Security, on tuition subsidies in Texas for illegal immigrants, and on Romney’s own writings and positions, he won a clear and decisive victory in a forum that was hardly designed to provide for that outcome.
Perry appeared unfocused and nervous, and his failure to offer a jobs program at the outset of the debate set the tone early for a performance that raises real questions about his ongoing and enduring political viability.
That the Texas governor still has not been able to clarify his position satisfactorily on Social Security compounds his problem further, and his efforts Thursday night did nothing to tell voters what he is for, what he is against, and more important, how he would ultimately reform entitlements—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. He has no plan, no program, and a position on Social Security that is just plain toxic.
By contrast, Romney was able to avoid any direct hits from Perry and the rest of the field on his own health-care plan—which Republicans have credibly argued is close to the one the president passed last year. Still, Romney’s success Thursday night, while considerable, does not address the large-scale issues and challenges facing the American people—not by a long shot.
What was missing last night from Perry, Romney, and indeed any of the other seven candidates on stage was an overarching vision of what is wrong with America and why we are facing profound decline. There was little discussion of jobs after the first segment, and almost no discussion of what Pat Caddell and I have called the “profound national crisis” America is facing, let alone a set of policies and initiatives to reverse what appears to be an inexorable decline.
The American people are angry, frustrated, and upset with a government that is paralyzed, an economy that has stopped working, and an international position that appears to be slipping almost daily.
Hardly anyone Thursday night could speak to that underlying decline and our eroding economic position, both domestically and internationally. And while both Romney and Perry spoke in fairly conventional terms about the need to reduce taxes and reduce regulation, neither of them, much less any of the other candidates, offered any sort of plan or even hope for an alternative vision of where America is going and what we need to do.
So while Romney won the debate and has created a dynamic that now puts Perry decidedly on the defensive, a huge opening remains not only in the Republican primary electorate but also for the American people for a candidate, or candidates, to speak to the most important overarching challenge we face as a nation—who we are, where we go, and how we change direction.