I heard it again on a radio ad for Newt yesterday, and decided that it was unfair to slam him for it, because the sponsor was his Super Pac, and we all know that (cough!) Super Pacs have no contact with the candidates they support. Then, last night, Gingrich made the argument himself, and not for the first time. The reason Newt Gingrich should be the Republican nominee for President is that he is the one best equipped to trounce Barack Obama in the debates.
“Wouldn’t it be great if we had our smartest guy going head to head against their smartest guy in the debates?” the perky actress playing a Newt supporter ( a dumb Newt supporter) said in the ad. “ “Newt would win for sure!”
The ad, please note, said absolutely nothing about whether Gingrich had any skills actually relevant to being President of the United States, and never said what his policies would be or how he would govern. Newt himself has talked about these things, but in the end he too boils his pitch down to one asset: He’s a better debater than Barack Obama. And the proper responses to that are, in order,
- Oh, yeah?
- So what?
- Liar, liar, pants on fire!
Regarding the first, Newt has hardly been dazzling in the gazillion debates we’ve seen him in so far. He is articulate and has a command of facts, but he has still issued a lot of whoppers, still seemed nasty and petulant much of the time, and still showed a penchant for making sweeping statements and wild suggestions that make one question his stability if not his sanity….like forcing judges who displease him to justify their decisions before Congress. Whatever criticism one might have of Barack Obama, he is cool in the spotlight, and not prone to rash statements. When Presidential debates have been decisive, it has usually come down to one spontaneous gaffe—Gerald Ford’s weird assertion that Communist Poland wasn’t under Soviet control, Jimmy Carter’s story about consulting little Amy about nuclear warfare, Mike Dukakis reacting to his wife’s theoretical rape and murder like he was reviewing his grocery list. Newt is a veritable gaffe machine.
Even if Newt could out-debate Obama, it is unlikely that the public would see it that way. This isn’t junior high, though Newt strikes me as the kind of kid that would be elected a junior high president. Presidential debates aren’t decided on points. I have had the pleasure of knowing a man named Arch Lustberg for more than three decades: he is arguably the most astute speech coach and public presentation expert in the country. Arch can take a fumbling, boring, nervous speaker and have him or her look and sound like an experienced public speaker in a matter of hours—I’ve seen it, and it’s incredible. His usual clients are business executives, but Arch could have worked wonders with such hard cases as George W. Bush, his father, and John McCain too. Arch explains that in any political setting, including debates, the most important ability is to be seen as likable, whether the candidate in fact is likable or not. Reagan-Carter, Reagan-Mondale, Bush I-Dukakis, Clinton-Anybody, Bush II-Gore, Bush II- Kerry, Obama-McCain…the most likable candidate won, regardless of the technical debate points. Unless, Newt hires Arch Lustberg quick, and I have arranged to have him hidden in a secret underground bunker until Newt’s gone, he’s not going to win any debate with Barack Obama in the ways that matter.
But let’s assume, just to be nice, that Newt is right, and that he will win the debates and the election as a result. How irresponsible is it to base your candidacy for President on a skill irrelevant to national leadership? This is like claiming that we should elect a candidate who shakes hands or kisses babies well. Okay: we elect the best debater in the country as President. What happens until the next debate, four years away? This is a reckless, non-serious, cynical, thoroughly irresponsible campaign strategy, the equivalent of arguing that a candidate should be leader of the free world because he can beat the current President in a pogo stick race.
And you know what? Newt knows all this! This is what is really infuriating: Gingrich does know his history, as he tells us so often. He knows that debating is a skill that is irrelevant to the presidency. He does know that being smart has little to do with effective leadership* and nothing to do with winning presidential debates. That theory was thoroughly debunked in the very first debate in 1960, when Richard Nixon, a trained debater and probably quite a bit smarter than Newt, took on a young Senator from Massachusetts with a funny accent. Debate experts recruited by newspapers to score the debate had Nixon winning easily, but what the viewers were impressed with was Kennedy’s fresh look, his youth, his poise, and the fact that he wasn’t embarrassed or intimidated by the glowering Vice-President with the five 0’clock shadow.
Gingrich knows this, and knows something else too: if Obama thinks that the only way Gingrich can beat him is through debates, there won’t be many debates. Maybe one, perhaps two. The main argument for Newt Gingrich’s candidacy is based on a lie. Newt is lying.
That, of course, is no surprise.
* The proportion of our most smartest Presidents who were less than dazzling (or less than trustworthy) in office is distressingly high: both Adamses, Madison, Van Buren, Buchanan (maybe the worst President of all), Grant, Arthur, Taft, Wilson, Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, Clinton…and I personally would include the current Chief Executive on that list.