Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and former House Speaker… (Jae C. Hong / Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — Earmarks have been a favorite talking point for this crop of GOP presidential candidates, but a discussion of the topic during Wednesday night’s debate revealed none of the candidates is quite as pure as they’d like to seem.
As a senator, Rick Santorum voted for a number of bills that contained earmarks. Mitt Romney requested an earmark from Congress to help fund the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. Newt Gingrich presided over the House of Representatives at a time when earmarks were prevalent. Ron Paul, too, has a rich history of earmarking.
These facts provided endless ammunition for the circular firing squad that took place in the early minutes of tonight’s CNN debate.
First, Santorum attempted to cast Romney as a hypocrite, noting Romney’s Olympics earmark before launching into a complicated explanation of how earmarks work, including a jab at Paul, whom Santorum called “one of the most prolific earmarkers today.” The monologue fell flat with the crowd.
“I didn’t follow all of that, but I can tell you this: I would put a ban on earmarks,” Romney said, but defended his earmark for the Olympics, arguing that the federal government has historically helped cities host the event and that he made a transparent and reasonable request.
“It’s really interesting, governor, because the process you just described, an open process … is exactly how the process worked in the past,” Santorum replied.
That’s when Romney turned his focus to Gingrich.
“I’m sorry, the 6,000 earmarks that were put in place under the speaker’s term, for instance –“
That got Newt going on a characteristically professorial lecture.
“Let me just say flatly, all of you need to think about this because this is one of those easy demagogic fights that gets you in a lot of trouble,” Gingrich said.
A Republican-controlled Congress under a Democratic president “may want the House imposing certain things on the president,” he said.
Turning to Romney, Gingrich said he thought it was “totally appropriate” for Romney to have asked for the earmark for the Olympics.
“I just think it’s kind of silly for you to run an ad attacking someone else for getting what you got,” Gingrich said.
Last in line was Ron Paul, still reeling from Santorum’s “prolific earmarker” remark.
“There’s reason for the confusion because it’s all Congress’s fault,” Paul said, but noted that “if Congress doesn’t say the way the money should be spent, it goes through the executive branch.”
“Even if I’m president, I don’t want more power with the executive,” he said. “… If you say you’re against earmarking and fuss and fume over it, the answer is, vote against the bill. That’s what I do.”