Would Newt Out-Debate Obama? It Wouldn’t Matter Anyway
Back in October, I went up to Cambridge, Massachusetts to watch the eighth Republican primary debate of the season with Mark McKinnon, the Republican media strategist who had served as debate coach for George W. Bush, John McCain, and Sarah Palin. I was interested in McKinnon’s professional assessment of a Republican field whose succession of frontrunners, from Tim Pawlenty to Herman Cain, had nearly all been made or unmade by debate performances. At the time, Rick Perry was hurtling toward the abyss, Cain was bafflingly ascendant, and Mitt Romney was performing as advertised. But McKinnon called my attention to the darkest of the dark horses among them: Newt Gingrich.
“Gingrich is doing what Perry should’ve been doing—jumping in, interrupting people, taking on the media, taking on Obama,” McKinnon explained. Gingrich’s place on the risible margins of the contest, he argued, was paradoxically the source of his strength: “Look at his career—Gingrich was the ultimate back bencher. That was when he was at his most effective.”
At the time this struck me as deeply improbable, but I have to concede now that McKinnon was well ahead of the curve. More than any previous occupant of the GOP’s Anyone But Romney seat, Gingrich owes his recent ascendance to his debate performances, to the primary voters who thrilled to his flaying of Juan Williams and John King on Fox News and CNN last week. A lackluster performance in Monday night’s faceoff in Tampa notwithstanding, it remains central to his appeal headed into Jacksonville tonight. Writing from South Carolina on Saturday, Slate’s David Weigel described the archetypal Gingrich voter he had met in the days leading up to Gingrich’s decisive victory there:
The Gingrich voter proudly announced who he’d voted for, saying that he made up his mind in the last week, or after the last debate. (Exit polls backed this up: Voters who decided in “the last few days” went 44-22 for Newt over Romney.) After a while, the only differences between their endorsements were the verbs they used to describe what Gingrich would do to Barack Obama in debates.
In Charleston, a voter named Jayne Harmon claimed that Gingrich would “dismantle” the president.
In Monck’s Corner, I learned that Gingrich would “humiliate” him. In Columbia, I was told that Obama would be “lacerated” or “annihilated.” When Gingrich spoke, and repeated his promise to challenge Obama to seven debates, a biker named Vincent Sbraccia hoisted his sign and screamed: “Wipe the floor with him! Wipe the floor with him!”
A lot of these people considered Gingrich a genius, or at least a first-class intellectual. […] He’d outdebate Obama because he didn’t accept the notion that Obama was a competent, eloquent president. They didn’t accept it, either.
This belief may be inextricable from the web of conservative conspiracy theories about Teleprompters and so forth, but for the sake of argument, let’s grant the nub of the Gingrich voters’ point: The speaker, first-class intellectual or no, is a consistently entertaining presence in the debates, and Obama is somewhat less so. The president was stiff and a bit dour compared to his adversaries in the 2008 primaries; his relative victories in the general election debates had more to do with John McCain’s flaws—the anger, the strange wanderings around the stage—than with his own performances.
But Gingrich’s supporters, surely big fans of history, might want to consult it. Since the advent of television, there have been just two presidential elections that were arguably decided by debates: elections in which the candidate leading in the polls going into the debates ultimately lost the race. The first was 1960, when a sweating and sickly-looking Richard Nixon saw his lead evaporate in the bronzed glow of John F. Kennedy. The second was the 2000 election.