Monday night’s GOP debate wasn’t a great one for Mitt Romney, but it was an awful one, I think, for Newt Gingrich. Will that matter? Not clear; remember that for most people, debates are mediated events, not direct events. That is, what they remember about the debate, whether they were watching or not, are the clips that get repeated and the spin that the news media and party leaders put on them. But if people were looking for ammunition against Newt Gingrich, he supplied plenty of it Monday during an early and extended exchange with Romney, in which Newt floundered badly on the subject of Freddie Mac, his ethics scandal when he was speaker, and other weaknesses.
Several people have pointed out that the fantasy fueling Newt’s campaign — that the trick to winning the general election is to destroy President Obama in the fall debates — is nonsense, because general election debates don’t really work like that. But what Monday demonstrated (and as I’ve been saying for a while; see also Seth Masket for a fine historical example), is that Newt’s reputation as a brilliant debater is actually a fraud. What Newt has done well isn’t debating the other candidates; what he’s done well is attacking the moderators, and it works especially well when there’s a partisan Republican audience ready to cheer any shots at the liberal media. That’s not going to happen in general election debates. More broadly, he’s quite good at using language designed to appeal especially well to Rush Limbaugh listeners: Chicago-style politics, Saul Alinsky, teleprompters, and more. Terrific, again, for provoking a big reaction from a partisan audience of intense, highly-informed conservatives. Utterly useless in general election debates.
Monday, without a hooting and hollering crowd, and with a moderator who mostly didn’t choose to get in a fight, the disgraced former speaker showed once again what a poor job he does when he engages with other candidates. Williams started the debate by basically begging the two leading candidates in the polls to tear into each other, and Mitt Romney was ready…or at least he was sort of ready; to my ears, he was only mildly effective at challenging Newt. But Gingrich couldn’t handle being hit. I’m not sure which was worse — that he eventually froze up entirely at one point for, oh, let’s call it a third of a Perry interval, or that he eventually resorted to a sneering “my friend” to refer to Romney. It’s always hard to tell how things play, and, again, what matters most is how (and if) these segments are presented to Republican voters over the next several days before they’re replaced with the next set of debate clips, but he sure looked awful to me.
Granted, a good deal of that is that he’s defending some difficult positions: his work for Freddie Mac and his resignation from Congress. He’s been defending the Freddie Mac one by implausibly arguing that he was just being a historian; now, he added a preposterous claim that he left Congress voluntarily because he didn’t want to be like Nancy Pelosi and serve for a long time. But when called on these claims, at least on Monday, he just deflated, and he was never really back on his game again.
Of course: That’s just one debate. There’s another coming later this week, and I believe that one will have an audience for Newt to play to. So Romney and the rest have until then to figure out how to maneuver around that one. Regardless, if anyone is really interested in how Newt would do against Obama, tonight was an excellent taste of his real debate skills.
More on the Florida debate from PostOpinions
Stromberg: Romney lands his punches
Rubin: Gingrich falters without a cheering section
Petri: Romney and self-deportation time