24 January 2012

Talk Amongst Yourselves for Presidential Debates?

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-GA 6th) now seems to have a schizophrenic attitude towards debates in his run for the Presidency.

Gingrich made a virtue out of necessity after his Newt 1.0  Presidential campaign nearly imploded in June by going deeply into debt with advisors, private planes  and his ill-timed Greek vacation as the campaign ramped up.  Newt decided to make his mark by impressing voters with his virtuoso performances during debates.  Gingrich’s two Moments in the Sun during this Presidential run have been premised on strong debate performances.

Gingrich is so enamored with his intellect that he challenges his opponents, both for the nomination and in the abstract for the White House, to Lincoln Douglas styled debates.

Both Herman Cain and former Governor Jon Huntsman (R-UT) to one-on-one debates that were supposedly in the fashion of the Lincoln-Douglas paradigm.  Both of these lesser opponents to Gingrich agreed to the event  as it raised their own profiles as it gave the aura of gravitas.   As for the Gingrich-Huntsman “debate” it was actly a wonkish ninety minute love-in on foreign policy which barely needed a moderator.  The non-adversarial chautauqua was interesting for the range of nuanced answers about public policy minutia but it would be unlikely to hold the attention or influence the average voter.  Besides it is dubious that President Obama will agree to the challenge of seven three hour match ups in the fall, with or without telepromter.

What is curious is Gingrich’s petulance after the NBC’s “Rock Center” debate in Tampa  in which  moderator Brian Williams instructed the audience of 500 not to make nary a noise during the debate.  Now Gingrich is threatening not to participate in future debates if the audience was silenced. This seems hypocritical both due to his Huntsman “debate” and presuming that Newt’s policy prowess is so supreme.

Since I have a life, I failed to watch the 18th GOP Presidential debate.  But if Newt is threatening not to play in future debate scrums, it makes me think that the self-styled philosopher king was unhappy at the fact that he could score easy points by playing populist politics with his audience.  Gingrich often makes his mark in debates by railing against the Media Machine or snidely focusing his fire on the eventual opponent--President Obama.  Newt earned two standing ovations in a week by chafing against Juan Williams facile insinuation of racism  and later with John King echoing spousal slurs as the leading question at a debate.  Previously, Gingrich got plaudits from the audience by not taking the bait for GOP but rather chafing for a fight with President Obama.

Rather than rebuffing a lack of audience interaction in any debates, Republicans ought to choose their sponsors more wisely.  The nearly score of debates have been hosted by liberally inclined news organizations which want to embarrass Republicans or engage in trivialities.  Consider: the networks of NBC (MessDNC, CNBC or the liberally aligned NBC); CBS–the Cubic Zirconium network, ABC’s George Stephanopolis (who served as President Clinton’s first Communications Manager); and CNN’s grunting John King.  Given the importance of debates for Republicans during this Presidential cycle, why should the Lamestream Media effectively skew Republican’s choice to be the Presidential nomination standard bearer?

If an event is well moderated and is not playing a hostile game of Trivial Pursuit, audience interaction may not be necessary.  In fact, a vocal audience in Orlando where two audience members booed at question by a homosexual soldier was spun by the Lamestream Media that Republicans hate gays instead of recognizing that it was objections to a set-up question.  Paulistinians show up en-masse into debate audiences and give their beloved Rep. Dr. Ron Paul (R-TX 24th) the allusion of disproportionate support.

On the other hand, the electricity of an engaged audience can give an immediate gauge to how well a Presidential candidate is selling his message during a debate.  People seem to remember Newt’s masterful reproach of John King’s salacious messy marriage question due to the strong audience support.  But later in the same debate, Gingrich went to his Bain-ful (sic) attacks on Mitt Romney’s success in capitalism.  Those watching the debates could see how this line of attack fell flat with the in studio audience, but not surprisingly that did not make the highlight reel.

Considering both scenarios, there should be room for events between candidates that allow for audience engagement as well as muted debates.  If there is quality material, a laugh track is not necessary for a comedy which gives the viewer unstated “permission” to feel something.  In a similar vein, elevated and engaged debates need not necessarily have a vocal audience, but that that there is anything wrong with that.

As Gingrich has meteorically risen in the polls, he has gotten somewhat persnickety in campaigning. Gingrich campaigned on being Mr. Nice Guy when he had no money for attack ads.  Now that Newt's Super-PAC is being largely underwritten by casino magnets Sheldon and Marion Adelson, let the negative ads roll.  Newt has done well at rallying the troops during debates, but now is threatening not to participate unless he has his way.  Gingrich loved hammering Gov. Mitt Romney about financial disclosures but when Gingrich's “consulting” with Freddie Mac was questioned as being more than a $25,000 a month historian on retainer, Newt got petulant and somewhat flustered.  It feeds into a longstanding meme that Gingrich is a better underdog than the leader of the pack and recalls the “Cry Baby” moment with President Clinton on Air Force One when the Speaker was flying high on the power circuit  in 1995.

As Linda Richmond would say in Coffee Talk “I’m feeling verklempt. Talk amongst yourselves. I’ve already given you a topic”.

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