Thursday, November 17, 2011

Is debate performance enough for a candidate?

Tim Pawlenty had to bow out of the race when his lackluster performance in the debates had him losing to Michele Bachmann. Republicans lost their enthusiasm for Rick Perry as soon as he showed up for debates and showed himself not to have either the verbal or mental dexterity to compete in the debates. Herman Cain came to the top of the polls based on the appealing persona he projected in the debates. And now, debates and interviews are showing him to not be fully versed with some of the issues facing us today. And now there is Newt.

Jonah Goldberg writes that Republicans are tantalized by the image of Newt Gingrich debating Barack Obama.
In each debate, he keeps mentioning how he wants to challenge the president to as many Lincoln-Douglas-style debates as possible. And if the presidential baloney won’t march into the Gingrichian grinder? Well then, the grinder will come to the baloney. Gingrich vows to follow Obama on the stump, offering rapid response after every presidential utterance.

It’s a brilliant tactic. Watching Gingrich walk onto the debate stage, it’s like seeing a great beast returned to its natural habitat. They should play “Born Free” whenever he comes out from behind the curtain.

The tactic works because the unifying conviction among hard-core Republican voters is that Obama is both overrated and full of it, a man pretending to be presidential and intellectual rather than the real thing. (Ironically, Gingrich has long been the subject of similar criticisms, mostly from the left.) Gingrich’s promise to goad Obama into a fair fight is beyond tantalizing.

Talk to rank-and-file conservatives about such a matchup and they grow giddy, like nerds asked if they’d like to see a battle between Darth Vader and Gandalf the wizard. Ask them if they’d like to see an Obama versus Romney debate (the thrilla with vanilla!) and they shrug.
Yes, I would put my money on Newt in a long-debate that followed the rules of a Lincoln-Douglas debate. But we're not going to have that, so let's just forget about it. We'll have the same format we've had for all the debates we've had since 1960.

And is debate performance enough? Mitt Romney hasn't been a slouch in the debates either. He's displayed an ease and facility with issues and with expressing his positions. He has a defense for Romneycare which might not convince a conservative, but would probably go over with an independent. And if all we have are the usual three or four presidential debates, would Newt's performance be enough to compensate for all the other problems he has trailing along with him like the dust-cloud that accompanied Pig Pen in the Peanuts comics?
After all, as a purely practical matter, the point of picking a Republican nominee isn’t to find the candidate who can beat Obama in a debate but to pick the nominee who can beat Obama in an election (oh, and be a good president too, a worthy subject for another day). Winning debates is great and important — as Perry has painfully learned — but they are a means to an end, not an end unto themselves.

It’s an open question whether Gingrich can defeat Obama in 2012. It’s taken as a truism that he has “too much baggage.” Well, some of the baggage is lighter than it appears. He was cleared by the Clinton-era Internal Revenue Service of wrongdoing in alleged ethics violations stemming from a college course he taught in the 1990s. The charge that he surprised his cancer-stricken first wife with divorce papers has been, at the least, exaggerated.

But, as with Kim Kardashian’s attic, you can throw away a lot of old baggage and still be left with too much for one person to carry. His marital infidelities, his verbal indiscipline, the strange mix of God and Mammon that is Newt Inc., and his grandiose way of talking about himself as one of the lions of the 20th — and now 21st — century: It may just be too much muchness for voters once they’re reminded of it all. And, oh boy, would they be reminded of it if Gingrich got the nomination.
You know that the media will be running retrospective stories to remind all of us why Newt eventually had to leave office under a cloud. We'd get all sorts of stories about how even his fellow Republicans couldn't stand him and tried to force him out of office.

For those who are in love with the way he bashes the journalists during the debates, pay attention to this quote from the former Speaker that Dana Milbank has in a column reminding us of how Gingrich had spent the past decade cozying up to Democrats time after time.
At one point during his dalliance with the Democratic establishment, Gingrich joked that “one can gradually rebuild almost any reputation if you pander enough to the authorities that write columns and show up on TV.”
Not really the bold crusader against the media that he is pretending to be now.

As Jay Cost reminds us in a perceptive analysis of the "Four Enduring Truths of American Elections," elections are won by those who can win over the swing voters.
After the Democrats were shellacked in the 1980s, Clinton offered to be a “New Democrat,” and after the Republican revolution seemed to have been repulsed in the late 1990s, George W. Bush promised to be a “compassionate conservative.” These are the kinds of modulations that are electorally expedient without betraying a party’s core philosophy of government.

In the end, this is a big way that parties go from defeat to victory: they really don’t alter their basic beliefs, but they refine their presentation of them, depending on the preferences of those swing voters in the center.
As Cost writes, the Democrats forgot about this rule of American politics after the 2008 election and thought they had a permanent Democratic majority that would permit them to pass bills that weren't popular. The result was the 2010 elections. The Republicans can't afford to misread the election returns of 2010 and make the same mistake.
What this means in practice is not that the party must forsake its conservative values, but rather it must find a nominee who can relate them to the practical worries of these non-partisan, non-ideological voters in the center, and make those voters believe that he will be the best choice for the future. Put another way, he must be a great salesman of conservatism to non-conservatives. And then in office, he must govern always with an eye to holding them in his voting coalition.

An ideological firebrand or a polarizer who alienates the political center will not do. Because, after all, the GOP’s opportunity next year is not thanks to an emerging Republican majority, but because the emerging Democratic majority the liberals were awaiting never happened. That means all those swing voters who backed Obama in 2008 are up for grabs, and the top priority of the GOP is now to find a candidate who can win them over.
Is Newt that guy?

Now that Gingrich has risen to the top of the polls, the question is whether he can withstand the barrage of scrutiny headed his way. When he was languishing in the basement, it wasn't worth the time and effort to examine his past. It's different now, and he presents a target-rich environment. And he doesn't seem prepared. He doesn't have the staff to handle self-oppo research. So he badly bumbled the questions about his work for Freddie Mac with the ludicrous claim that they paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars for "advice as a historian." If he doesn't have the staff to respond to attacks, he's stuck having to respond to them himself. And he doesn't seem ready for it. If he's being defensive about his past, he's not on offense about his future.

Ross Douhat reminds us of when Newt Gingrich had a spokesman and how that spokesman responded in the Spring to criticism of Gingrich's having called Paul Ryan's Medicare reforms "right-wing social engineering."
The literati sent out their minions to do their bidding. Washington cannot tolerate threats from outsiders who might disrupt their comfortable world. The firefight started when the cowardly sensed weakness. They fired timidly at first, then the sheep not wanting to be dropped from the establishment’s cocktail party invite list unloaded their entire clip, firing without taking aim their distortions and falsehoods. Now they are left exposed by their bylines and handles. But surely they had killed him off. This is the way it always worked. A lesser person could not have survived the first few minutes of the onslaught. But out of the billowing smoke and dust of tweets and trivia emerged Gingrich, once again ready to lead those who won’t be intimated by the political elite and are ready to take on the challenges America faces.
If this is the sort of pretentious puffery that Gingrich favors in his minions, I can't see his lasting long. He should allow others to call him a "transformational figure" and "change agent" instead of proclaiming his own vision of himself. We had enough of that self-love from the 2008 Obama campaign.

Gingrich is a risky proposition. And Republicans have to ask themselves, with Obama so vulnerable, do they want to take that risk? I sense no, but if the campaign comes down to a Romney-Gingrich two-man race, that might be the opportunity for Gingrich. Otherwise, Romney has to hope that all the other candidates stay in as long as possible.