Newt, the Debater

A long-time reader adds his thoughts to Steve Hayward’s “worries” about how Newt Gingrich would fare in debates against Barack Obama:

In thinking about a Gingrich-Obama debate, it’s helpful to consider why Gingrich has done so well in his debates against the Republican presidential field. One key to Gingrich’s success is his bashing of MSM questioners. For example, without Gingrich’s response to John King regarding the Speaker’s second marriage, I would be hard-pressed to argue that Gingrich outperformed Rick Santorum last night. These are the answers that bring the biggest ovations and that often are seen as the defining moment of a particular debate.

But media bashing is not likely to assist Gingrich when he debates Obama. Moderate and independent voters don’t hate the MSM the way conservatives and Republicans do. Indeed, it’s unlikely that they have anything much against the Bob Schieffers and Jim Lehrers of the media world. Thus, Gingrich will probably appear churlish and/or paranoid if he unloads on his questioners during debates against Obama.

Another, and related, key to Gingrich’s success is his superior ability to find non-obvious conservative talking points with which to respond to almost any question. Last night, for example, Gingrich immediately reduced a question about SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) to a question about Hollywood. Conservatives don’t like Hollywood any more than they like CNN talking heads. Answers like these show Gingrich to be both adroit and instinctively conservative. No wonder the audience eats them up.

But finding conservative red-meat where other Republicans see only see scraps is not a formula for success in a general election debate. To moderate and independent voters, conservative talking points are not sure-fire winners. A different mixture of talking points – a mixture that may come naturally to Romney – is more likely to appeal to the voters who will determine the outcome in November.

Gingrich might well be able to find that mixture; he’s clearly more than smart enough to identify it. He also knows how to talk in different ways to audiences depending on their ideology – that’s part of what I don’t like about him. But steering this course during three high-pressure debates requires more discipline than does the course Gingrich is on now. And discipline may not be his strong suit.

Moreover, Obama is a master of pushing talking points that appeal to swing voters. This was an important ingredient in his 2008 success. The stunt will be more difficult for him this year, but Gingrich wouldn’t have a clear edge in adroitness over Obama.

For these reasons, and those noted by Steve Hayward, I do not assume that Gingrich would knock out, or even clearly out-debate, Obama.