There is a theory being espoused by conservative and liberal pundits alike that one of the factors powering Newt Gingrich in the polls is the idea among Republicans that “the Professor” could wipe the floor with Barack Obama in a debate. Paul Waldman explains the idea here:
If you aren’t tuned in to conservative media – the radio shows, television shows, and websites where the base Republican voter lives – you might not be aware of how powerful this impulse is. Many conservatives are positively obsessed with the idea that contrary to all appearances, Barack Obama is kind of a dolt. There’s lots of talk about how Obama only got into Columbia and Harvard Law School because of affirmative action (you may remember noted highbrow intellectual Donald Trump making this claim), and endless jokes about Obama overusing teleprompters, with the idea that he’s too dumb to give an extemporaneous speech sometimes implied and sometimes stated outright.
So many conservatives have a fantasy that if they nominate their own smart guy, he’ll show the world that they’ve been right all along, that Obama is really a numbskull whom people only believe is smart because the liberal media sing his praises . . . .
. . . . [T]o many Republicans, Newt offers the opportunity not just to defeat Obama but to expose him as a fraud.
It makes sense to me that a sizeable chunk of the Republican base would believe this about President Obama, and that it would be important to them to win the election by humiliating Obama and the Liberals as much as possible. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that these voters care more about humiliating Obama and the Liberals than about actually winning the election in the first place. As mentioned here, and here Republicans don’t debate political ideas, Republicans wage war against political demons.
(Bonus Romney quote from last night’s debate: “There are Democrats who love America.” This should not go unremarked. Romney delivered that line like he was saying something revelatory, like it would surprise his audience to learn that there are at least some Democrats who are not actively working to destroy the United States of America. I tell you, the entire GOP is barking, staring mad.)
And for those Republican voters looking for assurances that Newt Gingrich might just make their dreams of domination and humiliation come true . . . well, Newt turned in a pretty good performance last night. I’m sure that any doubts such voters may have been harboring on that score were put to rest.
Newt is fully aware of this undercurrent in the Republican voting base, and Newt embraces it every chance he gets. That was the first thing that flashed in my mind when last night’s Fox News debate – the last one in Iowa before the caucuses – opened with a question to Newt about his electability and his response was: I can beat Obama in a debate. Newt was throwing red meat to the Republican electorate, promising them that not only can he get elected but that he can make the hated Obama look like a fool in the process.
And certainly, standing next to the yahoos who shared the stage with him last night, Newt did make that seem like a possibility. Gingrich seems to me far and away the most skillful debater the GOP field has to offer. For all the talk about his thin skin and his inevitable meltdown, if that happens it’ll happen on the campaign trail in an unguarded moment or it will happen when he gets testy in an interview. But it won’t happen in a debate. Gingrich is comfortable on stage and behind a podium, and he has a bag of rhetorical tricks from which he can draw in order to deflect attacks.
Some of these we’ve already seen. If asked about a specific question that makes him uncomfortable, Newt usually answers by talking in lofty, bombastic terms about “the big picture,” relying upon his supposed mighty intellect to dissuade his interrogator from pointing out that Newt never really did answer the specific question.
Another, cheaper device is something Newt deployed quite a bit in the early debates: attacking the moderator for asking the question. (Of course, this has been in the Republican bag ‘o tricks since George Bush Sr. famously feigned outrage at Dan Rather for asking him in an interview about Bush’s role in the Iran-Contra scandal.) I was watching the first time Newt used it in a debate this year, telling the moderators that they should be ashamed of themselves for trying to get the Republicans to explain why they each thought they were a better choice than their competitors. “You’re trying to get us to turn on each other,” Newt complained, “when we should all be going after Obama.” If I recall correctly, Newt than refused to answer the question. It seemed a transparently shabby trick to me, but the crowd erupted in applause.
Something else Newt knows how to do is draw other candidates into a dispute in order to give him cover. I remember he did it at least once with Romney last night – though I don’t remember on what topic – and I know he did it with Rick Santorum when Michele Bachmann went after Newt for his past stands regarding late term abortions. Pulling in other candidates by complimenting them on their past positions allowed Newt to appear reasonable while diluting the attack so that it wasn’t directed against him only.
But what Newt is really good at is delivering the red meat Republican voters crave. By far his best moment last night was when Megyn Kelly – looking plasticine in the make-up lacquered onto her face – asked him about his proposal to haul federal judges before Congress to be grilled on decisions that Gingrich doesn’t like, and about Newt’s proposal to simply “defund” the entire Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. But Newt didn’t back down an iota, arguing “They say the final arbiter of the law is the court system. It isn’t.” (Actually, ever since Chief Justice John Marshall’s decision in Marbury v. Madison, it is. Reversing this fundamental tenet of constitutional law would be undoing a whole lotta history, perfesser.) And the crowd loved him for it.
The same thing happened when Newt was asked about Obama choosing to delay the decision on the XL Pipeline for Canadian tar sands. Newt accused Obama of kowtowing to “the San Francisco hippies” and said that as President he would tell those hippies that “I’m not backing down but we’re right and you are totally wrong!” And the crowd loved him for it.
And the same thing happened when asked about Obama’s efforts to recover the downed spy drone that is now in Iran’s possession. Newt (although, to be fair, every candidate but Ron Paul did the same thing) portrayed Obama as weak because he asked Iran to give it back – like Iran was some schoolyard bully who had stolen our ball or something. I don’t recall anybody saying so explicitly, but apparently in GOP circles the correct thing to do when you lose a multi-billion dollar spy plane over a hostile country is to immediately go to war with that country to punish it for its provocation.
And in the end, Newt wrapped up the debate with a GOP Kumbaya moment – a variation of his “attack the moderator” trick – explaining that everybody on stage was qualified to be president (a patent lie) and that the important thing for the Republican Party was that it focus on beating Obama like a gong next year. It was classic Gingrich: tap dance around the attacks, deflect them onto your opponents, throw red meat to the base and then claim at the end that you “just want what’s best for the party and for the country.”
And it was smooth, too. I don’t think Gingrich will be able to get away with a lot of this stuff if and when he ever has to face Obama, but for purposes of the GOP nomination I think it worked just fine. If Gingrich was consciously trying to appeal to Republican voters looking to humiliate Obama in next year’s debates, I’d say that last night he very likely persuaded those voters that he’s their guy.
Honorable Mentions: Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum are basically non-entities at this stage. So is Rick Perry, although I thought he was probably the most cogent he has been since getting into the race; they must have finally figured out the proper dosage. Michele Bachmann, bless her shriveled little heart, attacked Newt constantly (she has to win in Iowa if her campaign is to survive), but was undone by her own lack of ability. Although she went after Newt for his connection to the “grandiose scam” – a description she repeated at least twice – that is Freddie Mac, it seemed pretty clear to me that she has only the vaguest idea of what it is Freddie Mac actually does. All Newt had to do was cite a couple of obscure historical “facts” and she was powerless to refute him.
Mitt Romney stammered a bit more than I’m used to seeing from him; perhaps he loses it when it suddenly looks like he can’t just coast to a victory. He obviously had settled on a defense against the attacks on him for his role in Bain Capital, which made a lot of money buying up companies, breaking them apart, and throwing people out of work. Romney’s defense: Hey! Sometimes in business things work out, and sometimes they don’t. I’ve been in the private sector and I’ve learned from both my successes and my failure.
Which is an interesting approach for a Republican primary. Apparently, Romney is arguing that it was never Bain Capital’s plan to destroy companies for profit – those are just instances where Bain’s investment in the company “didn’t work out.” But all that means is that Romney is trading “evil” for “incompetent.” It’ll be interesting to see how this defense plays with the GOP base; my sense is that the base doesn’t much care for failure, even if that does sometimes happen in the business world.
And, finally . . . Ron Paul. In any other state, and with any other candidate, Ron Paul’s campaign would be toast right now. Ron Paul, bless ‘im, was the only candidate to argue that the United States should not be looking to pick a fight with Iran. Bachmann lambasted him for that, telling him that it was the most dangerous statement she had ever heard. Say whatever you want about Paul’s nutty ideas, the man is sincere and he sticks by his principles. It seemed pretty clear last night that invading Iran at the first opportunity is the GOP’s latest “foreign policy plan,” and that idea went over big with the Republican crowd, but Ron Paul was having none of it.
The same thing was true when Paul was asked about Gingrich’s plan to make the federal judiciary subject to congressional and Presidential oversight. Paul said it violated the Constitution and the separation of powers doctrine – and he’s right about both – even though it was plain that the audience loved the idea of finally reigning in those “activist judges.”
Ordinarily this would have been enough to sink a GOP candidate’s campaign, but Ron Paul is beloved in Iowa, has (from all reports) a highly organized ground game there, and his fans may be few but their devotion is intense. I doubt that Paul’s performance will hurt him much in Iowa’s caucuses. It might certainly hurt him in all the other states, but Paul doesn’t really have a chance in all those other states anyway so what, really, does it matter?