Paul Begala: GOP Candidates Show Willful Blindness About Country’s Mood

Perry self-destructed, Cain dodged bullets, and Romney came out on top (again). But no one acknowledged that the political ground in the country is shifting, says Paul Begala. Plus, more Daily Beast columnists weigh in on the debate.

Scott Olson / AP Photo

The only knockout punch in the CNBC debate was the one Rick Perry administered to himself. His tiny Texas Aggie brain froze when he tried to repeat his talking point about the three federal agencies he would close. “Commerce,” he began authoritatively. “Education.” Then ... crickets. Someone called out “EPA.” No, Perry said. It was as dramatic and cringe-worthy a self-immolation as I’ve ever seen. I was in the room, 10 feet from Howard Dean when he screamed in Iowa. I was in the hall in Richmond when George H.W. Bush looked at his watch in the middle of a debate. But I have never seen a more devastating moment of self-destruction. What’s next, Perry endorsing Cain’s 9-9... ummm, what’s the third number?

But other than that holy sh*t moment, the debate was a replay of the previous 345 debates—with less electricity.

I realize many right-wing Republicans don’t believe in evolution—or gravity or photosynthesis or electromagnetism for that matter. But who knew they didn’t even read? Because judging from tonight’s debate, they sure didn’t read the election returns from this week’s elections.

Americans in Maine rejected a GOP attempt to restrict voting.

Americans in Mississippi rejected a GOP attempt to outlaw not only abortion but many forms of contraception. Americans in Arizona rejected the architect of the GOP’s severe anti-immigrant law. And voters in Ohio rejected a GOP attempt to restrict the rights of public-employee unions.

But you would never know that from tonight’s debate. In that sense the winner was Barack Obama. Evolution rewards the most adaptable, and Obama has adapted to the country’s populist mood by pushing his jobs bill, which calls for an end to what I’ve dubbed the Romney Rule— wherein some millionaires pay a lower tax rate than cops or construction workers.

All of the candidates regurgitated the same sound bites they have used all year—with no acknowledgment that the political ground is shifting under them.

Herman Cain looked like he wanted to kiss the moderator (but that would be harassment) when he got the first question and it was on Italy, not allegations of Cain’s, umm, hands-on leadership. But he got the harassment question soon enough. He said that the accusations are false, and that for every person who has accused him of harassment, there are thousands who would not. Huh?

It took 33 minutes before Cain could mention his 9-9-9 plan. The crowd, which roared for nearly every sound bite, cheered lustily for Cain.

Oops, maybe I should say enthusiastically.

With the brief exception of Cain defending himself on the charges of harassment, the candidates stayed on script. The moderators, especially Maria Bartiromo and John Harwood, were tougher than the candidates. They drew more fire—and handled it better—than the politicians.

No one attacked ersatz frontrunner Herman Cain. I understand that; no one knows where the Cain crisis is headed. But I am astonished that no one laid a glove on Mitt Romney. They didn’t even take a swing. (And yet Mitt’s hair was oddly tousled. How much you wanna bet he focus- grouped the new ‘do?)

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Before the debate, it was clear the GOP race would come down to Mitt versus someone from the right. But no one on the right seemed to act like it tonight. They neither differentiated themselves one from the other, nor attacked Romney. And so we end up right where we began.