Romney's EPA Hint a Subtle Poke, Not a Lifeline to Perry

In a subtle poke, Mitt Romney shows his sly sense of humor during CNBC debate.

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I'm afraid the Washington Post's Kathleen Parker got things exactly wrong when she praised former Gov. Mitt Romney for supposedly throwing Gov. Rick Perry a lifeline during last night's debate:

As Perry's brain was hardening into arctic pack ice, Romney suggested that maybe the third agency he wanted to eliminate was the EPA. Yeah, that's it! But no, it wasn't. Pressed by Harwood, Perry said it wasn't the EPA, but blast if he could remember what it was. (Later he said it was Energy.)

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 GOP hopefuls.]

Romney's suggestion when most of the others were squirmingly silent was an act of pure kindness and self-sacrificing generosity. It was not especially noticeable. But if you were Rick Perry in that moment, you were well aware that Romney was the one who tried to save you. When Perry finally said, "Oops," it was Romney toward whom he looked.

Small, but not insignificant, this gesture of active empathy tells much about the man who extended it. He's a nice guy in a season of nastiness, a trait that may also be his greatest political failing.

Maybe I'm alone in thinking this, but my reaction at the time—and after having slept on it—is that Romney was not helping Perry at all. He was piling on, in a quasi-good-natured way. I read in Romney's tone a sort of twisting of the knife; his intent would have been clearer if he had suggested, say, the Department of Defense.

[See a slide show of 10 Ways Romney and Perry Differ on the Economy.]

I realize that Reps. Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul have called for the elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency. But Perry hasn't—and I would maintain that most Republicans consider it an outlandish position.Perry instinctively knew this; that's why he laughed it off. That's why the audience laughed it off. That's why moderator John Harwood said, "Seriously?"

Romney's lifeline was not an "act of pure kindness," much less one of "self-sacrificing generosity." It was indicative of a rather devilish sense of humor.

I have to say, I'm surprised no one else has noticed this. My opinion of Romney actually notched upward a tick.

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