Republican hopeful Newt Gingrich honed a key message since the South Carolina debates: only he can beat Obama in the presidential debates.
Until last night’s debate, the message worked well. It combined one of Gingrich’s perceived strengths (debating) with the issue that matters most to Republicans (beating Obama). But the case for his superior debating skill became less persuasive after his poor performance in last night’s Florida debate hosted by NBC.
Gingrich gone into damage control since the debate, rebuking the moderator Brian Williams for telling the audience to refrain from raucous behaviour, and threatening to skip future debates that silence the audience. His threat undermines his key message about beating Obama, because presidential debates do not allow raucous audience behaviour. Presidential debate audiences are usually comprised of impartial voters. If Gingrich wants to lay claim to being best placed to beat Obama in debates, he’ll need to show it in the sort of environment that broadcaster NBC set last night. But he didn’t.
Under intense attack from Romney, Gingrich was stunned. His performance included embarrassing pauses, meek rebuttal and a failure to respond. If the former House Speaker wants to claim the title of best debater then comments like this are not enough:
Well, look, I`m not going to spend the evening trying to chase Governor Romney`s misinformation. We`ll have a site at Newt.org by tomorrow morning. We`ll list everything — he just said at least four things that are false. I don`t want to waste the time on them. I think the American public deserve a discussion about how to beat Barack Obama, the American public deserves a discussion of what we would do about the economy. And I just think this is the worst kind of trivial politics.
I mean, he said at least four things that were false. We have an ad in which both John McCain and Mike Huckabee in 2007 and 2008 explain how much they think Governor Romney can`t tell the truth.
I just suggest people look at them. Don`t listen to me, don`t believe me. Just look at the ad with Mike Huckabee and Senator McCain and you will understand exactly what you just saw.
Responses like the one above won’t cut it in the presidential debates. First, he simply dodged the criticism, saying that it would be a waste of time countering the claims. No – that’s called rebuttal. Second, Gingrich referred people to his website. Will the 50 or 60 million people who tune into presidential debates really go to candidate’s webpage for a fact check? Third, he tried to shift the target to Obama. In the presidential debate, who’s he going to shift focus to? And fourth, when all else failed, he relied on vague appeals to authority, in the form of John McCain and Mike Huckabee. Not good debating.
In the post-debate spin Gingrich has zeroed in on one of his two pet targets: the media, criticising NBC and moderator Brian Williams for silencing the audience. It is of course a distraction tactic. The audience may have been silent, but Gingrich’s silence was more telling. He didn’t challenge moderator – as he has in previous debates – because Williams asked serious questions and created a serious environment. It was exactly the sort of debate Gingrich asked for repeatedly before the raucous South Carolina audience rehabilitated his campaign: substantial issues and no “gotcha” questions. Complaining now smacks of wanting it both ways.
The threat to boycott further debates is of course hollow. There’s no way Gingrich would forgo the millions of dollars in free advertising that every debate offers. And there’s no way he’d allow Romney to attack him in his absence, in the same way Obama has been pilloried in these debates. It’s an empty threat.
Of all the debates held to date, this primary debate was the one that will most clearly simulate the presidential debate format and experience – and that’s why Gingrich’s claim that he has the debating skill to match President Obama has been so badly undermined in the last 24 hours.