Newt Gingrich’s war on Republican debate moderators

at 01:27 PM ET, 11/10/2011

If there’s one thing Newt Gingrich has made clear in recent debates, it’s that he doesn’t have much regard for debate moderators.

Gingrich’s duel with CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo at Wednesday night’s Republican debate in Michigan was perhaps the tensest exchange between Gingrich and a debate moderator to date, but it was simply the latest in a long line of them. Gingrich has taken on the press at almost every debate (he actually did it twice with Bartiromo on Wednesday) in what can’t be described as anything less than a calculated effort.

The tactic is both juicy red meat for conservatives who distrust the mainstream media and tiresome to journalists who see Gingrich as picking on them for cheap political gain.

Here’s why it works:

Gingrich is leaning heavily on debates to make him a contender in the Republican presidential race, largely because his campaign has struggled financially. And that means that he needs to make a name for himself and be a part of the debate’s coverage.

He told the Posts's Karen Tumulty (a recent debate moderator in her own right!), recently that his moderator-bashing “galvanized people across the country, and we began to move back into being seen as people paying attention.”

Other candidates will attack each other to get their names in the paper, but that can be risky because it could have the effect of turning off people who support that candidate or see the attack as under-handed.

At a Republican debate, though, a moderator is a much better foil. Most Republican voters are mistrustful of the media (Sarah Palin has made a cottage industry of this), and Gingrich, more than even Herman Cain, has positioned himself as the anti-mainstream media candidate.

“By focusing his attacks on debate moderators, consultants, President Obama and other figures, Gingrich can appear tough without alienating Republican audiences that he needs, and who may be lukewarm on their first-choice candidate,” GOP consultant Brian Donahue said.

Gingrich is good vessel for these voters because he’s always been known as the smartest guy in the room. By incredulously ragging on the debate moderator, he’s essentially saying, ‘I’m better than this debate, so I’ll make my own rules.’

“Gingrich pushing back on the moderators displays that he isn’t going to be pushed around by the establishment,” said GOP strategist Dan Hazelwood. “That’s good Republican and populist politics. Populists, conservatives and grumpy voters are tired of being told that the talking heads are clever and we are all dumb.”

The media bashing strategy can lead to mixed results though. And as a long-term strategy, it may not work as well.

Bartiromo was ready to joust with Gingrich, and when he suggested that explaining his health care plan in 30 seconds was “absurd,” Bartiromo offered him more time.

Gingrich appeared taken aback. “I can’t take what I need; these guys will gang up on me.”

While Bartiromo held her own, Gingrich has gotten the better of a lot of moderators, whose job isn’t to fight back but rather to simply ask questions. One thing that’s true about debates is that they don’t lend themselves to detailed policy discussions, and explaining one’s health care plan in 30 seconds is – how should we say this? – asking a little much.

But with so many candidates on the stage and only so much time, there really isn’t much of an alternative. Allowing candidates long periods of time to respond to questions means you won’t cover much ground, and candidates will often revert to broad talking points that journalists are supposed to penetrate.

Bartiromo did a good job of avoiding that, but Gingrich continues to get plaudits from conservatives for going after moderators like her. It’s been a win-win for him.

There are, however, a few ways this attack-the-media strategy could go badly for Gingrich.

One, the moderators could simply stop asking him (as many) questions, not wanting to take the abuse. As we’ve seen many times, candidates will often complain about not getting enough questions, and not all debates aim for equal time for each candidate. Without receiving questions, Gingrich could be relegated to an afterthought at these debates, which are, after all, his lifeline at this point to a credible candidacy.

And two, the media could begin to apply more scrutiny to Gingrich’s candidacy. This is not to say journalists would start taking cheap shots at Gingrich, but by holding himself up as the arbiter of journalistic ethics, Gingrich also opens himself up a little.

Many candidates strive for good media relations for that very reason; Gingrich is making no such effort. Thus far, he hasn’t been the subject of much in the way of tough, investigative reporting. And given his long history in politics – and some personal foibles (think: Tiffany’s) – there is plenty of material to mine. (A good example from Wednesday was the question about the money he made from Freddie Mac. He didn’t get that kind of question in previous debates.)

So far, the media bashing is working for him. He’s climbed into the second tier of the GOP race and could very well gain from the troubles that Cain and Rick Perry are experiencing.

If Gingrich does gain more ground, it will be interesting to see whether the former House speaker continues his assault on debate moderators who could be a lot tougher on him in the future.

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