Ask Republicans to explain the appeal of nominating Newt Gingrich to take on President Obama and it won’t be long before you’re reminded of the former House speaker’s intellectual and rhetorical acumen. Indeed, some Republicans become downright giddy when speaking about the prospect of Gingrich debating Obama.
It’s hard to blame them. After a decade of inarticulate and reticent standard bearers, and amid a field of much the same, Republicans see in Gingrich a learned and eloquent debater able and unafraid to take it directly to the supposedly golden-tongued Orator-in-Chief.
Gingrich, many Republicans believe, would make the presidential debates something to look forward to for the first time since Reagan.
Gingrich knows that his ability to talk is his chief asset and has invited Obama to debate him in seven three-hour Lincoln-Douglas-style debates should he secure the Republican nomination. “I will concede in advance that he can use a teleprompter,” Gingrich said mockingly of Obama when he proposed the debates in early December.
But before Republicans conclude that as their nominee Gingrich would be able to debate his way to the Oval Office, they should take a moment to remember what happened the last time Obama squared off against a smart and eloquent, but bombastic, pompous and egomaniacal Republican.
Consider the following analysis.
“[He] was not lacking in confidence.… There was no doubt the man could talk. At the drop of a hat [he] could deliver a grammatically flawless disquisition on virtually any topic. On the stump, he could wind himself up into a fiery intensity, his body rocking, his brow running with sweat, his fingers jabbing the air, his high-pitched voice trembling with emotion as he called the faithful to do battle against the forces of evil.
“Unfortunately for him, neither his intellect nor his eloquence could overcome certain defects as a candidate. Unlike most politicians, for example, [he] made no effort to conceal what he clearly considered to be his moral and intellectual superiority.…
Moreover, [his] self-assuredness disabled in him the instincts for self-censorship that allow most people to navigate the world without getting into constant fistfights. [He] said whatever popped into his mind, and with dogged logic would follow over a cliff just about any idea that came to him.
These words describe almost perfectly the intellectual and rhetorical bearing and style of Newt Gingrich. Only they weren’t written about Gingrich. They are Barack Obama’s words — from The Audacity of Hope — about former Ambassador Alan Keyes, Obama’s Republican opponent in the 2004 election for Illinois’ open Senate seat.
I was struck by two things as I recently watched old footage of the 2004 Obama-Keyes debates. First, Keyes comes across as a better debater than Obama. He seems more polished, smarter, and more confident than Obama. Keyes’ verbal fluency makes Obama’s use of verbal fillers and stutters, his repeated words and incomplete and restarted sentences, all the more noticeable.
The second thing I noticed were the striking similarities between Keyes and Gingrich. Keyes is more theatrical than Gingrich, while Gingrich is more overtly egoistic and self-reverential. (He has at various moments called himself “the most serious, systematic revolutionary of modern times” and a “definer of civilization.”)
But the two share many characteristics. For one thing, they both hold Ph.D.s (Keyes in government, Gingrich in history). Perhaps this helps explain why both Keyes and Gingrich have a tendency to talk down to opponents and debate moderators. Keyes was antagonistic toward the Illinois journalists who moderated the Senate debates, cutting off questioners and reacting harshly when moderators told him his time was up.
In a debate in which the candidates got to ask one other questions, Obama asked Keyes about Keyes’ past endorsement of repeal of the 17th Amendment. Keyes replied dismissively, “I think that the question actually illustrates the ignorance that I’ve noticed of your understanding of the American Constitution and its background,” before launching into a history lesson of the Constitution.
The remark — and the condescension with which it was delivered — may have pleased conservatives. But it probably didn’t play well to moderates in Peoria.
Gingrich received attention in the first few Republican presidential debates by attacking debate moderators. He lambasted one for asking “gotcha questions” and called another’s request to sum up his position on healthcare reform in 30 seconds “absurd.”
Such combativeness has made Gingrich look tough against a media that so many conservatives loathe. But it may not play as well with moderate and independent voters in a general election.
Keyes and Gingrich both use unnecessarily inflammatory language and sometimes raise irrelevant issues just to make a point. Keyes labeled homosexuals “self-hedonists,” and insisted that adoptions by gay couples would result in incest. He accused Obama of embracing a “slave-holders” position on abortion and labeled Obama a “hardcore, academic Marxist.” Keyes even suggested that Obama was not really African American because he is not a descendant of slaves and declared that “Christ would not vote for Barack Obama.”
These are the types of things conservative activists tell their supporters in fundraising letters. They have no place in political debates before audiences of voters who are just getting to know the candidates.
Gingrich has been similarly divisive, suggesting that Obama is a “Saul Alinsky radical,” and that the Palestinians are an “invented” people. Off the debate stage, Gingrich has called Obama the “food stamp president” who may hold a “Kenyan anti-colonial” worldview and suggested that the liberal agenda is “as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.” He even accused Obama’s first Supreme Court appointee, Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic Justice, of being a “racist.”
Such comments have helped Gingrich stay in the news and gain Twitter followers, but they don’t make him appear presidential.
Both Keyes and Gingrich have embraced off-the-wall positions and picked curious fights with Republicans. In the 2004 campaign, Keyes came out in support of reparations in the form of a suspension of the income tax for all blacks with slave ancestry.
Gingrich’s heterodoxies are too numerous to list, and include past support for legislative action to combat global warming and more recently referring to Paul Ryan’s entitlement reform plan as “right-wing social engineering.”
I don’t mean to suggest that Keyes and Gingrich are equally plausible as candidates. Keyes was a last-minute candidate who had never held elected office, never lived in Illinois and had virtually no chance of beating Obama.
Gingrich spent 20 years in the House of Representatives, rising to the speakership. He helped engineer the Contract with America and the first Republican takeover of the House in 40 years.
Perhaps most important, Keyes faced a rising State Senator Obama, while Gingrich would do battle against a diminished President Obama.
But at their core, Keyes and Gingrich are the same: both seem more interested in rhetorical point-scoring and intellectual exhibitionism than in winning elections or governing.
Keyes was quite effective in one respect. “[Keyes got] under my skin in a way that few people ever have,” Obama writes in The Audacity of Hope, adding that Keyes’ verbal attacks left him “frequently tongue-tied, irritable and uncharacteristically tense.”
Obama cruised to victory with 70 percent of the vote — winning by a 43-point margin, the largest in the state’s history of U.S. Senate elections.
Keyes didn’t lose despite his oratory, but rather in part because of it. As Obama put it, “Keyes proceeded during the course of a mere three months to offend just about everybody.” Or as one Illinois voter told USA Today about Keyes, “The man is always lecturing. I will not be lectured to.” It is reasonable to think Gingrich would provoke a similar response from many voters.
“Alan Keyes was an ideal opponent,” Obama concludes in Audacity, “all I had to do was keep my mouth shut and start planning my swearing in ceremony.” With Gingrich as his opponent, Obama would probably be able to do the same in 2012.
Daniel Allott is senior writer at American Values and a producer at In Altum Productions.