The Last Word | February 22, 2012
>> joining me now are msnbc political analyst howard fineman , msnbc political analyst , john heilemann, of "new york" magazine, and nbc news special correspondent , tom brokaw . tom, going into the debate tonight, rick santorum was trying to protect a national lead in the polls, and most importantly, most immediately, possibly, his lead in michigan . did you see anything in the dynamics of this debate tonight that you think could effect where those polls are going?
>> well, it was a 15-rounder, and they were all standing at the end. obviously, santorum now is going to be the target of opportunity who's going to the movement tonight with ron paul on one side of him and governor romney on the other side. i thought that governor romney had a pretty good night. i don't like to declare winners and losers here, but call balls and strikes. and santorum was spending a lot of time defending his record in the senate by saying, look, i didn't have any other choice but to support arlen specter , you know, as an appropriations bill . a lot of bill was about explaining away positions that he had supported, that on the campaign trail, he opposes. whether that nicked him or not, very hard to know.
>> let's listen to one of those explanations. he got dragged into trying to explain his history with earmarks, something that has become something you don't want to be tainted by in republican politics. let's listen to rick santorum on earmark earmarks. i guess we don't have all of this tape ready right away. howard fineman , the earmark -- now they're telling me we have it. all right, let's listen to rick santorum on earmarks.
>> as you know, there's a lot of anger in the base of the party about some of the things that have happened in the past, and the tea party especially. now, earmarks, the pork barrel spending , it's a tiny slice of the budget. i think we all know that. but if you talk to a tea party activist, they think it's an example and a gateway to corruption. senator, you have said there are good earmarks and bad earmarks and you have talked about your earmarks in the past. any that you specifically regret? and why have you criticized -- why do you think the money that went to governor romney for security at the olympics, why was that a bad earmark?
>> governor romney asked for that earmark. that's really the point here. he's out there on television ads right now, unfortunately, attacking me for saying that i'm this great earmarker when he not only asked for earmarks for the salt lake olympics in the order of tens of millions of dollars, sought those earmarks and used them, and he did it as the governor of massachusetts , $300 million or $400 million. he said i would be something like foolish if i didn't try to go out and get federal dollars. so the idea that somehow the earmarks during the time that i was in congress were this thing that drove up spending in washington, d.c. if you actually look at it, as i said before, as a percentage of gdp, actually the deficit -- some of the debt went down. what happened is there was abuse. when abuse happened, i said, we should stop the earmarking process. but i did say there were good earmarks and bad earmarks. we wouldn't have the v-22 osprey, which is the most essential air platform for our marines in particular, in the war against the radical islamists. we wouldn't have it if it wasn't for earmarks. that would have been killed under george bush 41. dick cheney wanted to kill that. many of us stood up and made sure that was there. congress has a role to play when appropriating money.
>> howard, how do you score the earmarks debate?
>> i score it as a complete loser for rick santorum . i'd heard from his staff and his spinners over the recent days and weeks about, hey, don't go after us on earmarks, because mitt romney asked for earmarks for salt lake city . so what? if you're an undecided, probably pretty conservative republican primary or caucus voter, and that's how you have to look at this, does rick santorum 's long and rather rambling answer on that satisfy your concerns? the answer is no. as tom brokaw pointed out, the whole bodiay agiagy aglanguage of this debate tonight was really rick santorum on the defensive about his years as a legislator. ironically, as chuck todd has pointed out on the web, where rick santorum was a team player for the bush family . so he's carrying the weight of some legacy the conservative voters don't really like. and time and again, he had to explain legislative mechanics. he had to say he'd learned his lesson. he had to say he wouldn't vote that way now. i think if rick santorum was looking to consolidate through this event his tenuous grip on the sort of national front -runner status in the race, this event didn't do it for him.
>> john heilemann, with an eye on michigan , which is the next place where votes will be counted, mitt romney found himself talking about the auto industry , of course, and the advantages of what he calls managed bankruptcy over what president obama took as action in intervening in the automobile industry . let's listen now to mitt romney on the auto industry .
>> go back to -- i think it was 2008 , president bush was still in office, and the three chief executive officers in the three major auto companies got in their private planes and flew to washington and said, please write us a check. i think they wanted $50 billion. and i wrote an op-ed in the paper, and i said, absolutely not. don't write a check for $50 billion. these companies need to go through a managed bankruptcy. because they put that money in, the president gave the companies to the uaw , they were part of the reason the companies were in trouble, giving these companies to the uaw was wrong.
>> and john, presumably, flying in private planes was wrong in the romney view of the situation.
>> absolutely right. lawrence , don't talk about the way that you get back and forth from the east to west coast. look, i think that in michigan , lawrence , you've got a situation that where if rick santorum is going to prevail there, mitt romney has most of the republican establishment lined up on his side. he has some favorite son status -- obviously, he has favorite son status abundance, but that's working for him to some extent. if rick santorum is going to win, he's got to line up conservatives and tea party voters. the question in this debate, i thought romney was fine in terms of defending that answer by trying to pin the problems on the uaw . i think the question in this debate was, how did rick santorum do in terms of advancing his aims with those two voting groups? and i thought that mitt romney on social conservatism was just as strong tonight as rick santorum . i thought santorum brought his "b" game on even those issues. i think he's been beaten up a little bit this week, and he was not as strong, even on conservative issues, as he has been in the past. and i think on this anti-government stuff that drives the tea party , i think howard's right, not only was he speaking legislative-ese all night, but he's reinforcing the message that moirick santorum is an insider and mitt romney is an outsider. that's a message that santorum has to overcome. when he was asked to describe himself in one word, the obvious answer should have been conservative. instead, he said courage. and that was a missed opportunity. i think that hurts him too.
>> i think the other piece of that, lawrence , is that he said "courage" after he had explain away all those votes that, in fact, did not show a lot of courage. my guess is that we'll hear some sort of an ad with rick santorum saying, best defined by the word courage, and a whole lineup of the votes that he did for earmarks and other things that he's now apologizing for.
>> he would not be the only senator who saw the courage to compromise. tom, iran came up as possibly the only real foreign policy issue that occupied any time in the debate. i want to listen to what rick santorum said about it, because it's actually an echo of what everyone, except, of course, ron paul said about iran . very, very hardline on iran . let's listen to rick santorum .
>> we need a new president, or we are going to have a cataclysmic situation with a power that is the most prolific proliferator of terror in the world, that will be able to do so with impunity, because they will have a nuclear weapon to protect them for whatever they do. it has to be stopped, and this president is not in a position to do that.
>> tom, that seemed to be the consensus among the top three candidates tonight.
>> yes, and, in fact, governor romney said that if he becomes president, in fact, iran won't have a weapon, but if we re-elect president obama , in fact, they will continue to have a weapon. look, this is a very complicated issue, quite obviously. it's very complex. a lot of people believe these are not ideologues, that the sanctions, in fact, are working against iran . that has russian card had to be played at some point, because he have entree to iran . the israelis, plainly, with good reason, are extraordinarily uncomfortable about it. but at the same time, we have to look at what's going on in pakistan. if you want to look at a center of terrorism, look at the west border areas of pakistan. this is a country with more than 100 nuclear weapons, extraordinarily disabled -- right now, unstable. and that didn't come up tonight at all. so i think these are issues that are probably not best played out on debate stages, lawrence .
>> from where i'm sitting, mitt romney seems to be the most disciplined debate preparer. you can see his homework once these debates start. and tonight, he demonstrated a new card trick in defense of his health care plan in massachusetts. he talked about rick santorum having endorsed him after he had done that, or endorsed him running for president last time around. i want to listen to the new take mitt romney had tonight on what the other candidates call romney care. let's listen to that.
>> let's not forget that four years ago, well after romney care was put in place, four years ago, you not only endorsed me, you and laura i thingrahamingrahaman said, this guy is a real conservative. the pro-choice senator of pennsylvania, that you supported, and endorsed in a race over pat toomey , he voted for obama care. if you had not supported him, if we had said no to arlen specter , we would not have obama care. so don't look at me, take a look in the mirror.
>> okay, gang, that is best reshuffling of the deck i have ever seen in a presidential debate . howard fineman , there is mitt romney blaming rick santorum for obama care.
>> well, and what made it worse, if you're keeping score in the debates is rick santorum took the bait. and then went into a long explanation of why he voted for arlen specter , why he supported arlen specter , why he backed arlen specter , because specter was going to be a reliable vote for supreme court justice nominees, et cetera . and i can tell you that it's not really a way to win the hearts of undecided conservative republican voters, to associate yourself with arlen specter . it's just not. because not only is is he pro-choice, he's pro- gun control , he's all the things that the last surviving liberal from pennsylvania in the republican party is going to be. so i thought it was very secluhrewd tactics on the part of mitt romney , there's no doubt about it.
>> john heilemann, it did seem to throw santorum off. he could never have been expecting -- he would never sit in that chair and think, at some point tonight, i am going to be blamed for obama care. by mitt romney . and you know, romney 's thread there wasn't that easy to follow, but it was much easier to follow than what santorum 's answer became.
>> yeah. yes, sorry, i thought you were about to play tape there, lawrence .
>> don't do that.
>> i thought that throughout the night that rick santorum , on that question, on a lot of questions, i thought rick santorum really seemed to kind of, tonight, bring his "b" game. and he was -- he did not -- this is, i think, could have been the most important debate of the entire cycle, the 20th debate. both of these candidates had important strategic objectives. there's a consensus out there in the world now, the republican world, that the if rick santorum wins michigan , that it becomes very hard for mitt romney to be the nominee. that raised the stakes hugely in this game. and i thought that santorum was, in general, throughout, he made all the specific mistakes that we've been talking about, but the general affect was not of the momentum candidate, not the guy on the rise, not the guy driving the contest. if you think about how well he performed in the florida debate, it was nothing like that tonight. i don't know if it had something to do with sitting around that table and kind of slouching throughout it, but he did not have the kind of aggressiveness and the clarity of someone who is, at the moment, the momentum candidate, tand the guy who's one win away from knocking out the front-runner and winning the nomination. he did not look like that man tonight, and i don't understand why.
>> tom brokaw , finally, the audience to these debates, this one started slow and stayed slow for a while. it wasn't like that one where the first question to newt gingrich was a giant moment in the debate. and what i'm wondering about is when an audience is 45 minutes in, and only then does it start to get interesting, and then it gets a little sleepy again, this is a two-hour drama, or it's supposed to be a two-hour drama. if it doesn't sustain the drama, is it possible for the points that we think are scored an hour and a half into this thing to actually register, or has the audience kind of drifted into another place?
>> well, it's -- that, again, is very hard to know. look, we're in the 15th rounds of these debates. they've been going on and on and on, and there wasn't that aha moment tonight, as we have seen in other debates. i was thinking about, two-thirds of the way through, where's jeremy lin when we need him. you know, a point guard to come in and shake things up. drain a couple of three-pointers, get a couple of assists. but that's where we are. and the fact is, lawrence , as you know, in the hall, and those of us who are watching this are the people who are dedicated to this process. and a lot of people will be catching up on this debate tomorrow morning on " morning joe " and on the morning television cable shows and over the air , they'll be reading about it in the newspaper. i was just in arizona over the weekend on other business. there wasn't a lot of buzz down there about the debate coming. obviously, they were paying a lot of attention to their politics. but they've got severe economic problems in arizona. on the other hand, they've got a lot of other good things going on, starting to turn the corner. there was a lot more talk about that than about the debate that was coming up. so i'm not surprised that at this stage in the game that it got to this point. i think to talk about what john was describing rick santorum and the position that he was in, he learned, as all of them have, newt, governor romney , now rick santorum , that you can be on the offensive when you're not leading the pack. but once you get out front a little bit, then you're playing the defensive game. and you don't have a lot of control over it. you suddenly become the target, the lead dog, if you will. and then that changes the dna of the whole debate.
>> tom brokaw , john heilemann and howard fineman , thank you all very much for joining me tonight.