The Washington Post

Republican debate: How to beat Newt Gingrich

Newt Gingrich entered tonight’s Republican presidential debate much as the New England Patriots entered Super Bowl XLII. The Pats were undefeated over 18 games. Gingrich was undefeated in his numerous encounters with debate moderators. (The Republican candidates staged 18 debates before this evening; Gingrich has been there for all but the first one.)

John Harris, Juan Williams, John King and others can attest to how Gingrich took their probing questions and responded with sharply articulated and highly effective attacks on the people asking them -- the national media, that is. Gingrich recognized early that the media are a foe that everyone could agree on.

Tonight’s debate, moderated by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, started out the same way. Asked if he were satisfied with the level of transparency in Mitt Romney’s tax returns, Gingrich lashed out:

GINGRICH: This is a nonsense question. (APPLAUSE) Look, how about if the four of us agree for the rest of the evening, we’ll actually talk about issues that relate to governing America?

BLITZER: But, Mr. Speaker, you made an issue of this, this week, when you said that, “He lives in a world of Swiss bank and Cayman Island bank accounts.” I didn’t say that. You did.

GINGRICH: I did. And I’m perfectly happy to say that on an interview on some TV show. But this is a national debate, where you have a chance to get the four of us to talk about a whole range of issues.

Stop the tape right there. Just stop the tape. That is where Gingrich excels. Behold the genius -- he agrees with the simple fact that he’d said what Blitzer claimed he said. That comes off as accommodating. Then the crafty former speaker makes a clever distinction: between a big event — debate — and a small one — a TV interview.

Blitzer had an unremarkable comeback:

But if you make a serious accusation against Governor Romney like that, you need to explain that.

Looks like a reasonable request on paper, but the crowd didn’t approve. Boos came from the seats. Blitzer appeared to be on the ropes. Until.....

ROMNEY: Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make accusations somewhere else that they weren’t willing to defend here? (APPLAUSE)

GINGRICH: OK. All right. Given that standard, Mitt, I did say I thought it was unusual. And I don’t know of any American president who has had a Swiss bank account. I’d be glad for you to explain that sort of thing.

So, to beat Newt Gingrich as a debate moderator, you need the following:

1) A good set of facts.

2) A transcript of talking points at the ready (Blitzer had that bit about Swiss bank accounts at his fingertips).

3) Unflappability. Knowing what happened to his colleague King last week, Blitzer had to have steeled himself for this moment. He betrayed no signs of flusteredness.

4) A touch of luck-cum-political backbiting. Had Romney not jumped into the fray with his dig about standing behind accusations, Blitzer and Gingrich may well have played to a standoff. And Gingrich wins all standoffs.

Like Super Bowl XLII: Blitzer 17, Gingrich 14.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.


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