No, Gingrich’s Debate Performances And Attacks On Liberal News Media Aren’t Just Cheap Theatrical Stunts
Ok, yes in a sense Newt’s debate performances have had an air of theater to them but they aren’t the cheap stunts his detractors make them out to be.
First of all, the criticism is silly on it’s face since to take it seriously you have to be under the impression that theater plays no substantive role in politics. No one seriously believes that. Politics is about moving people’s opinions and perceptions. If you think pure appeals to logic are the way to do that, you haven’t actually met any actual human beings or actually followed poltics.
So why are Newt’s debate performance actually important as a matter of substance? It’s because his demeanor and attitude are a stand in for the kind of campaign he will run. No, there will not be 20 debates against Obama and no Obama won’t agree to Lincoln-Douglas style debates (dear God, who would want 3 hours of those guys?). But there will be a long, brutal and competitive battle over competing visions for the country. Newt’s debate performances show that in interviews, town-halls with voters, speeches and yes the one or two debates with Obama, Gingrich will be relentless in pushing his ideas and his vision. He will not be knocked off his message by whatever attacks Obama throws at him. He’s not going to derailed by reporters asking leading questions designed to trip him up or create a soundbite that can be played again and again to kill him.
Look at Newt’s debate performances last week. What got the crowd going in the Fox debate wasn’t Newt attacking Juan Williams, it’s was his full throated,, unapologetic defense of conservative social-budget policies. The idea that forcefully and skillfully attacking the basic assumptions of the liberal welfare state is some sort of cheap rhetorical trick is patently idiotic. If conservatives don’t want that paired with strong,, pro-growth policies like Newt has proposed, what exactly are we doing here again?
As for the smack-down of the Marianne Gingrich story, what Newt did was simply turn a huge potential liability into a political positive. I’m sorry, is that actually considered a bad thing now? Maybe I’m crazy but I actually want my candidate to at least be a competent politician. If you lay down and die to John King, why exactly would I believe you’ll stand up to the onslaught of a campaign run by David Axelrod and supported by almost every media outlet in the country?
Now compare Newt’s handling of a tough challenge to Mitt’s handling of questions about his tax returns. Remember his incoherent and stumbling answer when asked if he’d release his tax returns. After much fumbling and hemming and hawing, it came down to, uh, maybe in April (which he’s now flipped on and will release tomorrow)? I’m supposed to think Mitt’s answers and political (not simply debate) skills are superior to Newt’s? I guess what I’m really supposed to think is that in a political campaign, political skills don’t matter.
And what about Mitt on Bain? Yes, Newt’s attacks were lame but Mitt couldn’t even rebuff them. Romney was unable to sway GOP primary voters who should support his basic premiss. Why in the world would anyone think Romney will melt under even harsher Obama attacks in front of more moderate general election voters?
Put aside policy ideas, character questions and record for a minute and think back to 2008. How many of us were disgusted with McCain for not forcefully going after Obama? Remember the pleasure he seemed to have taken from his part in electing the first African-American President? I can absolutely imagine Mitt thinking if he’s going to lose, he’ll lose like a gentlemen. The odds of Newt doing that are somewhere between. “zero and are you insane?”
So spare me all of this talk about Newt’s theatrics and debates that won’t happen. You can’t separate substance and presentation in a campaign, they work hand in glove. What we’ve seen out of Newt is a glimpse of what his campaign will be like against Obama. You may not think it will be effective but I think staying on message and aggressively defending yourself isn’t just an emotional catharsis, it’s how you motivate people to rally to your substance.
Of course this is all stuff Mitt is bad at so like so many other things, he and his supporters simply demand it not be part of our consideration, ridicule it and diminish its importance. I might be inclined to cut Romney slack on all of this if the substance of his proposals were so great. But considering Mitt is weaker on things like Social Security reform and taxes than Newt, why settle?