Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Yeah, Newt's Debate Skill is a Fraud, Too

Newt Gingrich generally got good reviews for his debate performance last night. It may revive one of the things we heard about a lot during the Newt surge of December: that Republicans liked the idea of nominating him because they thought he'd destroy Barack Obama in the fall debates. Now, the idea that presidential (general) elections hinge on debates is a fantasy anyway (one that Ross Douthat was good on back when Newt was on top partially because of belief in just fantasies). But would Newt actually be good at the fall debates?

No, he probably wouldn't be. Newt's strong suit last night was an extended debate with Juan Williams, in which the former Speaker cleverly enlisted the audience on his side. Which reminded me: virtually every one of Newt's great debate moments all year have been exactly like that. Usually at the expense of a moderator, Newt fires off a one-liner that is perfectly in tune with GOP live debate audiences...you know, the audiences that have jeered the Golden Rule and cheered executions.

You know which debates were tough for Newt? As it happened, there were a string of debates in December, just around the time that he was leading in the polls, that did not feature heavily miked partisan audiences. And Newt didn't do well without them. Nor did he handle attacks all that well. Meanwhile, when he was running a hard negative campaign against Mitt Romney outside the debate hall, he went all Pawlenty on the big stage, especially in a New Hampshire debate earlier this month when he was just rolling out his attacks. Indeed, one of Newt's tricks in early debates that played quite well with the GOP electorate was praising each of his rivals on stage and urging everyone to play nice and concentrate on the big goal of taking down Obama. That's a smart debate trick for an also-ran in a big primary field, but it isn't what Republicans want in a general election debate. For that matter, in the two one-on-one debates Newt arranged (with Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman) he basically praised or ignored his on-stage opponent.

Again, this is mostly theater review rather than political analysis, given that Newt isn't going to be the nominee and that debates don't make much of a difference anyway. But it's always fun to make the point whenever it comes up: he's a pretty good snake oil salesman, but otherwise the guy is a total fraud.


  1. Audience participation is frowned upon -- usually discouraged at the top of the broadcast by the moderator -- in the general election debates. I can hear Jim Lehrer now (from the PBS documentary Debating Our Destiny) saying, "The audience has been asked to remain silent except for now as we welcome our two candidates."

    It would be a tough row to hoe for Gingrich in the fall.

    ...you know, if debates were actually determinative.

  2. Unlike other fraudulent things said about Newt (such as the idea that he's an "idea man"), the notion that he'd destroy Obama in a debate is nothing more than a right-wing talk-radio fantasy; it isn't, as far as I know, commonly accepted by the MSM.

  3. He's not a good debater according to what is meant by "debate" outside of the sphere of electoral campaigns. But for electoral debates, which are more like group press conferences, he's relatively good, and even in moving from primary to general election, he would still be able to use the tactic of challenging the moderator.

    1. But that wouldn't necessarily play well in the general election, where post-debate spin usually punishes behavior that's regarded as overly aggressive--think of the reaction after Gore stepped into Bush's space and interrupted him (mostly because he didn't answer the question, but never mind). It plays well with the GOP base (when it's done by a Republican, of course) but is viewed by the MSM as unpresidential.

    2. Good point. But it will also depend on how much of a frustrated, anti-establishment-ish mood the public is in, come November. The MSM isn't exactly so respected by people in general these days. You're right about where things stand now. But all it might take is a return to full-on recession conditions. OK, I'll end my pessimism for now.


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