Streetcar Line

The Fallacy of the Master Debater

Staged face-offs will mean little next fall.

By 12.7.11

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Newt Gingrich: Master Debater.

Such seems to be the impression driving the Gingrich boomlet in the Republican presidential contest -- as if, by virtue of his supposed debating ability, Gingrich will be the man most likely to defeat Barack Obama next fall.

It's a myth, on multiple levels, as we shall see.

Yet the power of the Gingrich surge does show, again, a lesson taught well by neo-Nazi David Duke when Duke was ascendant in Louisiana politics two decades ago: When considering a candidate for office, almost right up until they enter the polling booth and sometimes even in the booth itself, most voters rely more on what they see and hear themselves in real time than on facts, history, logic, or learned experience. If a speaker/debater "connects" with them, a lot of voters will actively siphon out all evidence against the speaker, in effect by adopting the "hear no evil" posture of one of the three infamous monkeys. Until powerfully disabused of what they consider a "first-hand" impression (first-hand because they "experienced" it by watching it on TV), many citizens will become the polling equivalent of jury nullifiers, becoming ever more obstinate in their positions. In this case, the position most dear to them is that they want to see somebody stick it to Barack Obama, face to face, and pummel him (politically speaking) into oblivion.

With Duke's appeal to working-class white Democrats for nearly three solid years, what mattered was how well he parried the attacks from the hated media while making a case for low taxes and welfare reform -- and it didn't matter what they saw reported about his continuing Nazi or Klan ties because they didn't see it for themselves when he spoke on camera like a more approachable, blow-dried heir to Barry Goldwater. It was only in the last three weeks of his campaign for governor, when TV ads helped push through the message that a Duke governorship would cause businesses (and jobs) to flee Louisiana in droves, that all of the other accumulated evidence against Duke could finally be processed, and result in his landslide defeat.

Something similar is happening with Gingrich and the image of the Master Debater. People see Gingrich handle himself well in eight-way debates (an easy task when no other candidate has even bothered criticizing you all year because you seemed so irrelevant), and they imagine that he's the one to take the fight to Obama. Suddenly it doesn't matter that he has always been not only anti-conservative on cap-and-trade, but has lied about what his position was. Suddenly it doesn't matter that he said the profiteers at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac should be criminally investigated even though he was one of the profiteers -- and that he, again, apparently has been prevaricating about what he did for Freddie. Suddenly it doesn't matter that he has always been wrong on a health-care mandate, wrong on ethanol for all the years he's been paid to be wrong on ethanol, wrong on entitlements and on Paul Ryan's budget, wrong on amnesty for illegal immigrants, wrong as wrong could be on ethical issues and behavior aplenty, wrong on the TARP bailouts, wrong on liberal candidate Dede Scozzafava, wrong in the past on the Fairness Doctrine, wrong on leadership, weak at actual negotiating (actually, "melting") against Bill Clinton, weak at actually running a government, and about as personally trustworthy as Joe Isuzu: He's gonna pummel Obama, yesiree, and then all will be well!

Perish the thought.

First, Gingrich isn't all that good one on one. Clinton made mincemeat of him. Michele Bachmann rocked him on his heels with the mildest of assaults on amnesty. And his own former wife (number two) says he loses his cool when tweaked about personal things like his ample and undisciplined girth. Yeah, he's great on his feet -- until he implodes, at which time he drags everybody on his side down with him.

But that's not the important part. The important thing is this: Even if Gingrich's debating invincibility weren't an utter myth, the notion that debates next fall will be tremendously important is a myth, and a much bigger one. The deal is this: General-election presidential debates rarely make a big difference. What makes a bigger difference is unpaid (establishment) media (Gingrich will get crushed), organization (Gingrich will get crushed), paid media (Obama's $800 million campaign will crush him), and the voters' sense of whether they would mind seeing and hearing the candidate on their TV screens for the next four years (not bloody likely, based on the Gingrich persona's long-established propensity to wear out its welcome and become grating after a few months).

But let's consider this subject completely apart from Gingrich. The key question is, will strong debate performances make a decisive difference in next fall's campaign?

Easy answer: No.

Only one general-election presidential debate truly appeared to be decisive -- and, for that matter, only one primary-season debate had a similar effect, too. Both were won by Ronald Reagan, who was unique. In Nashua, N.H., in 1980, he waxed Poppy Bush and won a landslide because of it. Against Jimmy Carter that fall, he entered the lone debate one week before Election Day in a dead heat in the polls and ended up winning by a landslide. But that was Reagan. People liked him, in heartfelt ways, and had been liking him for 45 years. They couldn't help liking him. And they trusted, at a deep level, that he meant what he said, because he spent 25 years saying the same things -- rather than mandating-or-non-mandating, cap-and-trading or non-cap-trading, as political winds and personal financial payoffs shifted.

But other than Reagan, nobody has ever swung large voting blocs -- not just in the Gallup polls, but in the voting booths -- on the strength of debate performances. Sure, John F. Kennedy arguably gained a small margin over Dick Nixon among those who watched their debate rather than listened on the radio, but all that accomplished was getting him close enough to lose if it weren't for his ability to steal the election in Illinois and Texas.

Sure, G.W. Bush gained an ever-so-slight edge over Al Gore when he coolly let Gore come off as overbearing and mendacious in the last of their debates -- but again, only at the margins, and not enough to avoid a five-week Florida recounting nightmare.

Bush v. Kerry? Nothing decisive. Obama v. McCain? Nothing decisive. Reagan v. Mondale? Some great lines, but Reagan led by landslide margins regardless. Clinton v. elder Bush? Well, Bush did look at his watch, but that election was decided by the timings (plural) of Ross Perot's entrances into and exits from the race. Clinton v. Dole? No difference. And while Gerald Ford certainly hurt himself by claiming Eastern Europe wasn't Soviet-dominated, he was trying to recover from a 32-point deficit anyway: The debate hardly told the tale.

All of those other factors -- TV ads, grassroots organizing, wedge issues, the economy, and especially a candidate's long-term likeability -- make a much bigger difference in campaigns than do debate performances. Nobody is going to slay Obama face to face: He's too cool. He may be bested on points, but he won't show his distress. He may lose at the margins, but nobody -- especially nobody with a history of extravagant and self-defeating utterances, such as Gingrich -- will destroy him in a glorious duel. If he is to be beaten, the defeat will spring from the public's ultimate wisdom in overcoming an $800 million campaign, not from a manufactured gladiator ring.

The key thing is, can a candidate against Obama, throughout the long course of a campaign, build and carry out the right narrative against him? Experience shows that Newt Gingrich cannot. The truth is that Bob Dole didn't so much lose the 1996 race to Bill Clinton -- an outcome almost unimaginable even 13 months earlier -- as that Newt Gingrich lost it. From behind the scenes (in terms of public attention -- remember that only a tiny percentage of the public had even heard of Gingrich the day before the 1994 congressional elections) Newt Gingrich could help others in 435 House races frame a narrative against 40 years of Democratic rule; but once he was in charge of things, front and center, all he did was step all over his team's narrative again and again. Framed by the Gingrich image of Republican meanness, Dole never had a chance.

And then Gingrich did it to Republicans yet again in 1998, so badly that he resigned in embarrassment.

And, as was shown by his recent-year stumbles in dealing with Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, Al Sharpton, Scozzafava, ethanol, cap and trade, and the Ryan budget, Gingrich has not matured one bit.

A leopard can't change its spots. A grand wizard Kluxer under his sheets (à la David Duke) can't hide his wizardry. And no debate can help Newt alter his lizardry.

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About the Author
Quin Hillyer is a senior editor of The American Spectator and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom. Follow him on Twitter @QuinHillyer.