Dr. Ceaser is right that we should consider the situation when looking at what a particular debating performance tells us about a candidate’s future debating ability. Herman Cain’s boomlet was built on his debate performances. A necessary condition of those performances was that the other candidates left him alone and criticized neither his 9-9-9 plan (which he mentioned as the answer to just about every economic question) or his tendency to answer every foreign policy question by asserting that he would ask some experts and he would use his experience as a pizza leader to reach a decision to be named later. Now, let’s not sell Cain short. He had some real talent as a bs artist and he took advantage of his opportunity. But if the other candidates had pointed out the distributional impact of 9-9-9 or pressed him on foreign policy, he would have shattered early on. Something similar happened with Gingrich. His campaign collapsed after the Paul Ryan “right-wing social engineering” fiasco. He rebuilt his brand by magnanimously praising his opponents and preaching Republican unity (even as they clawed each others’ eyes out), and focusing his attacks on Obama and the media. It worked and he went to the front of the pack. Then, when his opponents focused in on him, his debate performances got a lot less impressive. Suddenly Gingrich didn’t look that much better than Bachmann or Ron Paul or Rick Santorum (who all did at least as well as him in exchanges.) With his less impressive debate performances and the huge numbers of negative ads, Gingrich’s numbers collapsed. Then Romney took his foot off Gingrich’s neck. Romney focused his attacks on Obama. Those attacks were obviously both feeble and opportunistic. Gingrich had the space to perform without being pressured by any of the other candidates. The moderators in a couple of debates gave him made-to-order straight lines. He took the heads off the moderators and many Republican primary voters pictured Gingrich doing the same thing to Obama. It was a fantasy, and it was punctured by Romney in the two most recent debates.
So how should we grade Santorum? Well he isn’t going to fly as high as Gingrich. Gingrich is an unprincipled and talented demagogue. He has no problem making enormous and impossible to reconcile promises. Huge tax cuts! No Medicare changes for anybody who doesn’t want them! Private accounts for Social Security and don’t worry about the transfer costs! Maybe go to war with Iran to stop them from getting nukes! Moon colonies! All to be paid for by Lean Six Sigma and consolidating poverty programs! Gingrich also has a pretty good idea about the resentments of his constituency and knows how to play to them.
Santorum won’t make the outlandish promises that Gingrich made. He told the truth about what private accounts would do to the budget. Santorum is also less cynical about culture war issues. Gingrich knew that his food stamp president comments would set constituencies who heard the comment differently at each others’ throats. He knew the result would be nobody getting fewer food stamps or one job being created. He also thought he could profit off the resulting bitterness as one of the constituencies rallied to his defense(and for about a week he did.)
But if Santorum lacks many of Gingrich’s talents and vices (and the benefits that come from those vices), Santorum has his own assets. Gingrich is a bully at heart. He is good at making himself look strong by taking on those he perceives as weak, but when people hit back, he whines and folds up. Santorum has been pugnacious the whole time. His tendency to mix it up with the other candidates (along with his complaining about not getting enough time) was probably a reason why he didn’t catch on earlier. Santorum has been picking arguments with Ron Paul on foreign policy. He doesn’t always come out decisively on top, but he doesn’t back off from his beliefs. Santorum has also been the only Republican candidate who has been able to consistently get the better of Romney on the health care issue (it wasn’t just the last debate.) Santorum usually doesn’t have to stop to remember what he should pretend to believe. There is power in that.
So what to make of Santorum’s last performance? What does it tell us about how he might do in future debates? He has gotten better since the earlier debates. He isn’t as whiny and hostile. He isn’t the best debater or the brightest smartest guy out there. Put him up against a bright college sophomore and Santorum will usually win, but it’s a fair fight. He has a record of voting for big spending and is a professional politician. But, even if Santorum becomes the focus of criticism, he probably won’t look much worse than he did last week. Knowing what he believes would give him a steadiness that Gingrich lacks.
That is of course if the state of the race is such that future debates really matter.