After 17 gruelling debates, it hardly seemed possible that the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination would find anything new to say in an 18th televised sparring match.
But if you needed proof that all politics is still local, you had only to tune in to Monday night’s GOP debate in Florida, where the same old issues took on fresh new meaning.
Several segments of the debate, and many of the candidates’ lines of attack, were designed to resonate with Florida Republicans, a particular sub-species of the GOP made up of snowbirds, Cuban exiles and Exhibit ‘A’ victims of the housing meltdown.
Here’s how it played out:
Medicare Part D
Anywhere else, support for Medicare Part D, which subsidizes prescription drugs for seniors, is seen as a disqualifying factor in Republican politics. The program, introduced under George W. Bush, is held up by conservatives as an example of how the GOP went astray by creating new “entitlements” without paying for them. Medicare Part D has added hundreds of billions of dollars to the U.S. deficit since its 2006 inception.
In Florida, however, Republicans must walk a fine line between criticizing the unfunded nature of Medicare Part D, while voicing support for the intent of a program cherished by the state’s disproportionate, and disproportionately Republican, seniors population.
As a result, Mitt Romney’s attempt to tar Newt Gingrich as an “influence peddler” for advocating for Medicare Part D while his consulting firm had dozens of health-care and drug companies on retainer was not as effective as it might have been in any other state.
“I publicly favored Medicare Part D for a practical reason,” Mr. Gingrich shot back. “The U.S. government was not prepared to give people anything – insulin – but they would pay for kidney dialysis….I am proud of the fact – and I’ll say this in Florida – I am proud of the fact that I publicly, openly advocated Medicare Part D. It has saved lives.”
Mr. Gingrich won the point.
Mr. Gingrich’s resurgence is principally due to his success in portraying himself as the outsider who would scare the elites in Washington. But if it is true that Mr. Gingrich is the GOP establishment’s worst nightmare, the former Speaker is also a consummate Washington insider. He’s spent half of his 68 years there, in and out of Congress.
The $1.6-million he earned in consulting fees from Freddie Mac, the bailed-out federal mortgage insurer widely fingered as a prime suspect in the housing meltdown, is doubly problematic for Mr. Gingrich in Florida, where one-in-four mortgages is under water.
The same day his campaign launched a scathing new attack ad in the Sunshine State aimed at Mr. Gingrich’s Freddie Mac connection, Mr. Romney used the debate to drive the point home. He suggested Mr. Gingrich used his connections in Congress to protect Freddie Mac from Republican politicians seeking to dismantle it.
“I don't think we can possibly retake the White House if the person who's leading our party is the person who was working for the chief lobbyist of Freddie Mac,” Mr. Romney said. “Freddie Mac was paying Speaker Gingrich $1.6-million at the same time Freddie Mac was costing the people of Florida millions upon millions of dollars.”
Mr. Romney ridiculed Mr. Gingrich’s earlier contention that he had been hired by Freddie Mac as a “historian.” (The ex-speaker holds a PhD in history and briefly taught college-level history and geography.)
“They don't pay people $25,000 a month for six years as historians,” Mr. Romney charged. “You could have spoken out in a way to say these guys are wrong, this needs to end. But instead, you were being paid by them. You were making over a million dollars at the same time people in Florida were being hurt by millions of dollars.”
Mr. Romney won that point.
Immigration is another issue that takes on a whole new meaning in Florida. In Iowa and South Carolina, where Republicans are united in their anti-amnesty views on illegal immigration, Mr. Romney’s hard-line position on the issue worked in his favour.
But in Florida, where Hispanics account for almost a quarter of the population, Republicans are divided between hard-line Tea Partiers, on the one hand, and pragmatists and Latinos on the other.
Mr. Gingrich likely had his eye on Florida in setting out a nuanced position several weeks ago that called for the deportation of new illegal arrivals, but grandfather status for “upstanding” families that have been in the U.S. illegally for several years or more.
Mr. Romney had come down hard against that position elsewhere. But on Monday night in Florida, he was not as categorical. Rather than employing government resources in enforcing immigration laws, he proposed the peculiar idea of “self-deportation.”
“We're not going to round people up,” he explained. “People who come here illegally would, under my plan, be given a transition period and the opportunity during that transition period to work here. But when that transition period was over, they would no longer have the documentation to allow them to work in this country. At that point they can decide whether to remain or whether to return home and to apply for legal residency in the United States, get in line with everybody else.”
That idea is unlikely to please either Tea Partiers or Hispanic Republicans who argue for a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. It is hard to see what Mr. Romney gained with improbable idea of “self-deportation.”
Perhaps moderate Republicans will feel it strikes a middle ground between expensive deportation efforts by government authorities and outright amnesty. But more likely, “self-deportation” is likely to be ridiculed by both sides in the debate.
Mr. Romney scored no points here.
What would a Florida Republican debate be without some good old Castro-bashing?
Asked what he would do as President on learning of the death of Fidel Castro, the Cuban strongman who handed the reins of power to his brother a few years ago, Mr. Romney quipped: “First of all, you thank heavens that Fidel Castro has returned to his maker.”
Mr. Gingrich did him one better: “I don't think that Fidel is going to meet his maker. I think he's going to go to the other place.”
“The policy of the United States should be aggressively to overthrow the regime, and to do everything we can to support those Cubans who want freedom,” Mr. Gingrich added. “Obama is very infatuated with an Arab Spring. He doesn't seem to be able to look 90 miles south of the United States to have a Cuban spring.”
Mr. Gingrich said he would use “every asset available in the United States, including appropriate covert operations,” to overthrow the Castro brothers. He said he would do “what Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher did to the Soviet empire.”
It was Newt at his bombastic, boilerplate best. But lines like that still play well with Cuban-Americans, even if anti-Castro sentiment has been diluted as the first generation of Cuban exiles ages and dies off.
Mr. Romney, however, risks paying a price for criticizing the Obama administration’s moves to lift restrictions on travel and financial transactions with Cuba. That policy is highly popular with Cuban-Americans. Even if they oppose the regime, they like the idea of nearly unrestricted family visits and unlimited money transfers to relatives.
Newt wins the point easily.