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Newt Gingrich As Debater – An Extended Look

Newt Gingrich is feeling cocky these days, which many take as a bad sign. He says he wants to engage President Obama in a debate, and Obama can use a teleprompter. Many conservatives are cheering Gingrich on, convinced that he would eat the fumble-prone Obama alive. Maybe so. But a long-time reader points out that Gingrich hasn’t always been so aggressive when he has actually been in the ring with seemingly less-capable Democrats. He writes specifically about Gingrich’s 2007 debate with John Kerry on methods of reducing carbon emissions–a topic that seems a bit archaic given what we now know about the gaping holes in global warming alarmism:

With Newt Gingrich surging in the polls, Republican voters are asking themselves (1) how staunchly conservative is the former Speaker and (2) how would he fare in a debate against President Obama. Gingrich’s 2007 debate with John Kerry over carbon reduction methods sheds light on both questions.

First, the debate shows Gingrich to be less than staunchly conservative on key environmental issues. The Speaker finds much common ground with Kerry, all of which is to the left of center. Indeed, deep into the debate Kerry is able to claim Gingrich as an ally on carbon reduction issues (see around the 1:39 mark of the debate) without demurrer from Gingrich (see around the 1:40 mark).

None of this proves that Gingrich is wrong – the merits are best left to another post, and not by me. But some of Gingrich’s positions in the debate fall well outside the mainstream of conservative Republican thinking.

Second, in my opinion Kerry outdebates Gingrich. The Speaker holds his own in the initial statements, but once the give-and-take begins (at around the one-hour mark), Kerry begins to pull away. There’s some irony here because Gingrich has said that, if nominated, he wants a Lincoln-Douglas style debate with Obama. Yet it is precisely in the Lincoln-Douglas style exchanges with Kerry that I think Gingrich fares the worst.

Kerry’s triumph is due in part to Gingrich’s willingness to cede ground. Indeed, there are times, in my view, when it’s a misnomer to call this debate, as opposed to a discussion or even, occasionally, a love-fest (see around 1:19, for example). Gingrich’s problem, here and perhaps in other contexts, appears to be an unwillingness, in the presence of prestigious liberals, to challenge liberal premises. In this debate, for example, Gingrich early on expresses skepticism over the science on which liberals rely in this area. But as the debate progresses, Gingrich allows Kerry to push that science unchallenged and to powerful effect.

Even I’m right in believing that Gingrich lost this debate with Kerry about the environment, it doesn’t mean he would lose a more wide-ranging debate with Obama. However, the Gingrich-Kerry debate is instructive, and I hope it is widely watched now that Gingrich has become a serious contender for the Republican nomination.

Gingrich can be a fire-eater before a friendly audience, but he has a history of turning conciliatory when he has to deal with actual Democrats. One recalls his embarrassing tributes to President Clinton during the days when Clinton was eating Gingrich’s lunch in budget negotiations. Like most conservatives, I am fond of Newt and will always be grateful for his leadership in the years leading up to the 1994 GOP takeover of the House, and in the early aftermath of that takeover. But there is little in Newt’s record to suggest that he would be the most effective conservative standard-bearer in a presidential election.

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