In 1996, I watched in horror as unctuous Bill Clinton decimated a flatfooted Bob Dole in every debate. So I got very excited when it came time for the single vice presidential debate – a chance for the charismatic, articulate Jack Kemp to finally make the case for the Republicans in the way that Bob Dole, an awkward speaker at best, never could.
That debate was the single most disappointing moment in a campaign filled with nothing but disappointing moments for conservatives.
I thought about that as I read this piece in American Thinker titled “The Myth of ‘Newt the Great Debater'” by John Ziegler. Newt’s second resurgence comes as a direct result of two very strong debate performances, and conservatives are salivating over the idea of “a series of glorious, three-hour, Lincoln/Douglas style debates. By the end of that process, according to the Gospel according to Newt, Obama will have to be carried off the stage by network news anchors as our next president basks in the glow of a nation grateful to having been shown the light of truth.”
This scenario is not just some risk-free fantasy; it is as dangerous as the kid on the top of a building who thinks he can fly because he is wearing a fancy cape. Newt Gingrich would not only fail to crush Obama in a debate, he instantaneously would eliminate any doubt as to the inevitability of the president’s reelection.
Newt is the kid with the cape, and he’s going to crash to the ground. The question is whether or not he’s going to take the GOP with him.
In his closing remarks, Newt talked about the “series of Lincoln/Douglas debates” that he would have with the president. Really? Has the president agreed to this series of debates? No. And he won’t. He would be a fool if he did.
Instead, we’re going to get the same kind of joint-press-conference-style debates we’ve gotten for the past umpteen election cycles, and Newt’s sprawling, grandiose nonsense will seem kind of goofy in that kind of a one-on-one with the prez. In addition, he won’t get a crowd of South Carolinian tea partiers to cheer every time he puts down the moderator. So, like Jack Kemp in 1996, he’ll walk into the debate with blitheringly high expectations for a forum that won’t allow him to meet them. The result? Hail to the Chief playing at Barack Obama’s second inaugural.
Still, Newt will win on Saturday, and the primary campaign will continue. There will be a huge hue and cry, oodles of false drama, and Romney will scramble to recover. This is, however, ultimately a very good thing for Mitt. Newt has made him a much better candidate, but he still has a long way to go if he hopes to have a prayer of winning a general election. His debate persona is a bit bizarre – he actually sounds more sincere and human when he’s reciting canned, rehearsed lines. When he tries to ad lib and awkwardly laughs at his own jokes, he’s terrible. (Is there a worse answer than “maybe” to the question about whether he’ll release his taxes?) Mitt is much better than he was in ’08, and he keeps getting better the harder he has to fight. South Carolina will force him to fight. He’s still going to win the nomination, but he’ll have earned it by the time he gets there.
By the way, am I the only one who thinks Santorum comes across as sanctimonious and whiny? People praising his debate performances see something other than what I’m seeing. What they call principle, I call petulance. This is going to come down to Newt and Mitt, and Mitt will win. And then he will lose – unless the struggle with Newt hones him into a candidate that doesn’t look like he stepped out of “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.”
In the meantime, fantasies of SuperNewt will dominate a few weeks worth of news cycles, until the electorate finally discovers his Newt Kemp alter ego.