Newt Gingrich is basing his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, in large part, on one premise: He is the candidate best equipped to debate President Obama.
If he becomes the nominee, Gingrich asserts, he will challenge the president to seven Lincoln-Douglas-style debates, three hours apiece. He says the president’s ego would compel him to accept, but if he doesn’t, Gingrich promises, “I’m going to say, ‘The White House is now my scheduler,’ and wherever he goes, I will show up within four hours to take apart whatever he said — that’s how Lincoln got Douglas to debate.”
Supporters of the former House speaker love to imagine these debates. After all, the debates among the Republican candidates have helped Gingrich enormously in the GOP contest. In South Carolina, he brought cheering audiences to their feet in back-to-back debates before trouncing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by 12 percentage points in the state’s Jan. 21 primary — and nearly two-thirds of Palmetto State voters said the debates affected their decision. Gingrich’s legions picture their guy landing blow after blow against Obama, leaving the president dazed and hopeless.
It’s easy to dismiss Gingrich’s challenge as a gimmick, just some red meat to excite GOP primary voters, and not a challenge Obama would ever accept. But what if he did? What if the president and the former House speaker dueled in a series of open, nationally televised debates? An honest look at Gingrich’s record suggests that the results could differ markedly from the fantasies of Team Newt. Obama would not collapse in a heap, Gingrich would not emerge triumphant — and the whole thing would go down as the biggest campaign blunder since Richard Nixon figured he could out-debate John F. Kennedy on television.
In most of today’s televised debates, reporters or audience members pose questions to the candidates, who must answer under tight time limits. In the 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, there were no reporters or moderators onstage, only a timekeeper. Instead of rapid-fire questions and answers, there were long speeches. One candidate spoke for an hour, the other spoke for an hour and a half, and then the first had a half-hour rejoinder.
It’s easy to see why this format appeals to Gingrich. As he likes to remind everyone, he’s a historian and a former professor, so he has plenty of experience delivering lectures with authority. Though he has never published anything truly scholarly, he reads widely and has countless policy topics — electromagnetic pulse attacks, anyone? — at his fingertips. There is little chance that he would have a Rick Perry “oops” moment.
Gingrich has also had some success with long-form events. At the Oxford Union debating society in 1985, he defended President Ronald Reagan’s Central America policy in response to a speech by the vice president of Nicaragua. Though the audience appeared to disagree with him, Gingrich won a standing ovation for the quality of his argument. In 1994, he organized an Oxford-style health-care debate on the House floor, which helped the GOP when Gingrich and his colleagues proved better prepared than the Democrats.
And in the run-up to the 2012 Republican primaries, he had what was billed as a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate with former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, at which Gingrich extolled the virtues of the forum. “This is what we should have a lot more of,” he said. “This is substantive. . . . We’re not going to solve things with, you know, ‘What’s your solution on Libya in 30 seconds?’ This is not a Hollywood game; this is not a reality show. This is reality.”
Some conservatives dismiss Obama, by contrast, as a speaker who, while compelling, is lost without a prepared text. Gingrich has sarcastically offered to accommodate him in the debates: “I already said that if he wants to use a teleprompter, then it would be fine with me.”
But as a student of military history, Gingrich should know better than to underestimate an opponent in this way. The president taught law at the University of Chicago and has as much experience lecturing as Gingrich. He has shown in White House events and town hall meetings that he is perfectly capable of talking in depth and in detail about complex policy issues.
In debates with Gingrich, Obama might botch a name here or a fact there. The Twitterverse would light up, the mistake would loop on YouTube — remember his mention of the “Intercontinental Railroad” or his campaign claim of visiting 57 states? — but the general public would scarcely notice. At most, he might have to guard against signs of arrogance that can turn off voters and viewers, as when he told Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008 that she was “likeable enough” as she answered a debate question about the “likeability issue.”
Gingrich is prone to a more serious kind of mistake. His problem is not that he errs on the fine points but that he makes radioactive comments that alienate voters outside the Republican core. In a debate in October, CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked whether voters should pay attention to a candidate’s religion. “How can you have judgment if you have no faith?” Gingrich answered. “And how can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?”
He was applying a religious test for the presidency and implying that atheists are unfit for public office. At the time, Gingrich languished at the back of the presidential pack, so his statement did not stir much discussion. If he said something similar during a debate with the president, the ensuing controversy would overshadow everything else he was trying to say.
Gingrich made this comment in a short reply to a short question. The more time he gets to talk, the more likely he is to say something outrageous. Throughout his career, his speeches and extended interviews have been spawning grounds for odd or even grotesque Gingrichisms.
Shortly after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo., Gingrich blamed liberals for the killings, and he threw in the Balkans conflict as well. “I want to say to the elite of this country — the elite news media, the liberal academic elite, the liberal political elite — I accuse you in Littleton, and I accuse you in Kosovo, of being afraid to talk about the mess you have made and being afraid to take responsibility for things you have done, and instead foisting upon the rest of us pathetic banalities because you don’t have the courage to look at the world you have created.” This was his first major speech after leaving Congress.
Eight years later, after the Virginia Tech massacre, George Stephanopoulos asked him on ABC if he still stood by his Columbine comments. Gingrich said that he did, and when Stephanopoulos asked what liberalism had to do with violence and dehumanization, he answered: “Well, who has created a situation ethics, essentially, zone of not being willing to talk about any of these things?”
If Gingrich made such remarks in a presidential debate this fall, the public would recoil. If he didn’t, Obama could still use the Georgian’s long history of verbal overkill to paint him as divisive and destructive. When he’s under criticism, Gingrich’s standard operating procedure is to interject that people are taking his words out of context. In a Lincoln-Douglas format, he would just have to sit and seethe until his turn came. As we’ve witnessed several times during the current debates, Gingrich is very good when he’s pretending to be angry; he’s very bad when he is angry for real. After his poll numbers fell late last year, he hurt himself by using scarce debate time to complain about attacks by a pro-Romney super PAC; his peevishness compounded his fall. Knowing this history, Obama would try to play with his head.
Gingrich has recently stressed that he prefers having a live audience that’s free to voice its feelings. No wonder: His smackdowns against journalists — especially Fox News’s Juan Williams and CNN’s John King — have won him raucous applause from Republican crowds. His supporters think he would get a similar response this fall. But as conservative commentator John Ziegler has pointed out, the audiences for those debates would include independents and Democrats as well as Republicans. Any incendiary remarks by Gingrich would get more catcalls than cheers.
What of the audience at home? Gingrich is hoping that long-form debates would enable him to reach the great mass of voters without the distorting filter of the mainstream media. But nobody except the most committed partisans would sit through 21 total hours of serial monologues. Even if undecided voters made a good-faith effort to watch, they’d start tuning out after 45 minutes or so. Gingrich’s greatest foe in the debates wouldn’t be Obama — it would be the remote control.
In the end, what most people would see of such debates would be brief clips on news programs. And those clips would naturally consist of the most dramatic and attention-getting material — including the moments when Gingrich drew jeers from the audience for making over-the-top attacks. And so he would be back to where he’s been many times, complaining of selective quotation by liberals and the media.
This line of defense often backfires on him. In May, when his remarks about Medicare on “Meet the Press” were criticized, he took them back and then offered an absurd warning: “Any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood.”
So just picture Obama giving Gingrich everything he wants: seven three-hour debates with demonstrative audiences. Gingrich would then be able to make knockout punches — against himself.
John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a co-author of “American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship.”