Whatever the final results of Tuesday’s New Hampshire Primary, the Republican Party endured four damaging days in the run-up to that climactic confrontation.
The two debates over the weekend (Saturday night on ABC TV, then Sunday evening on Fox News) showed our candidates at their worst and portrayed the party leadership as petty, angry, egotistical and out of touch. The dueling evaluations of who “won” and who “lost” the interchanges are beside the point – though, for the record, it seemed to me that Fred Thompson and particularly Rudy Giuliani managed to escape with less embarrassment and fewer wounds than Romney, Huckabee and McCain.
The problem wasn’t the performance of one candidate, but the negative and niggling tone of all of them – especially in contrast to their Democratic rivals. A few more weeks of this nit-picking, negative nonsense and we will turn a difficult general election campaign into an impossible one.
Following the New Hampshire tally, it’s crucial for the surviving GOP frontrunners to make two major changes in their collective approach: first, to begin focusing on the future rather than the past and, second, to stress their major, overwhelming areas of agreement rather than obsessing over their relatively trivial disagreements.
LOOK TO THE FUTURE, NOT THE PAST
The twin GOP debates featured fiery, extended exchanges over picayune details of little or no concern to the average voter. Did Mitt Romney really raise taxes in Massachusetts or did he just raise $240 million in fees? Did Mike Huckabee’s article that used a phrase citing the Bush administration’s “arrogant bunker mentality” indicate he wanted more negotiations or, as he now insists, more troops to do a more aggressive job? Did Mitt Romney read the article before he commented on it – or afterward? Did John McCain favor “amnesty” per se or merely “a form of amnesty” (as Mitt Romney now qualifies his attack)? Did Romney’s attack ads accuse McCain of amnesty, or not? Did Rudy make New York a full “sanctuary city” fourteen years ago or merely make accommodations for humanitarian reasons, like emergency medical care or reporting crimes? Did McCain vote against the Bush tax cuts because he loves high taxes (even though he’s never voted to raise taxes in 25 years in Congress) or because he insisted on linking cuts in taxes with cuts in spending?