After a month of growing mythology surrounding Newt Gingrich as the one Republican who could debate rings around Obama, the Iowa Family Forum—the first debate of this season that allowed the candidates room to move and time to explain—ought to have changed the game significantly. The Forum had flaws, but it shone a light on something hidden by the formats of the previous debates: For all his ersatz erudition and ready-to-hand citations, Gingrich’s actual positions are vague, his statements of principle confusing, and his bravado derivative—unsurprising discoveries about the most Machiavellian candidate in the race. By contrast, the truth surely did set the other candidates free, as they spoke without fear and without reservation, in some cases for the first time during this debate season.
To begin with, the format of this event was conducive to thoughtful, soul-searching answers, partly due to the Christian conservative tendency of the questions, but mostly due to the relaxed atmosphere of the setting. Sitting close together at a house of worship; talking about God, faith and responsibility around a table decorated as for Thanksgiving; questioned—rather than interrogated—by people who do not instinctively regard their role as that of advance-workers for the Obama campaign, everyone spoke his mind, and expressed himself from the heart, rather than strictly from his notes (a predicament demanded by the severe time limits of the other debates). Rather than stiff, awkward people trying to figure out how to get a word in edgewise, or how to persuade listeners about complicated matters in three sentences or less, everyone had his opportunities to expound, to impress, to offer (of all things) a sense of his soul to the audience.
The moderator of the forum was Frank Luntz. To his credit, he spoke to the candidates without condescension, and asked questions that, for the most part, helped to keep the candidates focused on their own positions, and on their own priorities, rather than allowing them to slide into attack mode, a mode which so frequently devolves into a game of hide-and-seek, as candidates conceal their own shortcomings behind their well-prepared critiques of others’ views.
Having said that, this observer could not help sensing a certain bias towards the hot commodity of the moment—not in time-allotment, thankfully, but in the nature and ordering of questions; in the passive acceptance, and often direct praise, of the former Speaker’s answers; in the moderator’s frequent near-argumentative interruptions of, and challenges to, other candidates; and in his references to Gingrich’s past statements as authoritative on various issues, as though Gingrich were the one person on the stage who had already framed and answered these issues conclusively, while the others were still trying to define themselves (i.e. as though Gingrich were not precisely the one with some explaining to do).
The entire discussion is recommended viewing, and is readily available on the internet. Thus, every detail need not be attended to here. I will, however, draw attention to some particularly representative examples of the diminishing of Newt’s aura, and, by contrast, the growth of the conservative contenders.
In previous debates, Gingrich’s strength lay in his ability to throw in an articulate attack on a common enemy, such as the moderator, or President Obama. In this friendlier context, the moderator was not a possible target, and the focus on matters of the soul left Obama out of the direct line of fire through most of the discussion. At one point, clearly anxious to get this line in, Gingrich took a general discussion of freedom and responsibility and twisted it to allow the introduction of Occupy Wall Street, on which he delivered a prepared statement, concluding with the planned applause bait, “Go get a job, right after you take a bath.”
First of all, as perhaps the last person at that table (Romney and Huntsman were absent) to come down with unequivocal force on OWS, this rabble-rousing line was a clear attempt to anticipate those around him who might have had more credibility in making this criticism. However, as the crowd cheered his quip, Herman Cain signalled his wish to speak next. Moderator Luntz looked at Cain and said, dramatically, “Do you really want to follow that?” (No favoritism there!) And then, as Cain tried to begin, Luntz actually interrupted him to remark further, “Mr. Cain, there’s a certain rule in entertainment, which is never follow a great applause line.”
In other words, not satisfied with Gingrich having stolen the moment, Luntz tried to reinforce the point by aggrandizing it to the implicit denigration of Cain. Cain breezily conceded, “I cannot top that one”—and then, slowly, with perfect cadence and pregnant pauses, proceeded to top it. “But he—Speaker Gingrich—just gave a perfect illustration, PERFECT, of the statement I made earlier (long pause for applause)... on Wall Street: Freedom, without responsibility, is immoral.”
Cain snatched the crowd immediately away from Gingrich, and in the process reminded everyone that he, Cain, was the man who stood up immediately and berated OWS for its defence of sloth (and recall how the media treated him for this at the time) back when Gingrich was still making excuses and qualifications for the mob. With one swing, he stole Gingrich’s laugh track, and belittled his argument by subsuming it within his own. In so doing, Cain showed us how substance can trump opportunistic demagoguery.
Example number two: On the question of the relationship between law and morality, a thoroughly sophisticated debate broke out, with Ron Paul and Rick Santorum squaring off—Paul for immorality as the necessary price of liberty, Santorum for law as the society-forming tool of morality—and Michele Bachmann staking out a position just this side of Paul, while emphasizing the specific issue of liberty in religious speech. (Imagine a discussion of similar gravity breaking out between, say, Obama and Hillary Clinton. You can’t? That’s because it couldn’t.) Gingrich’s contribution was typical of his style in this debate, and indeed in his career. Taking stock of the Christian conservative bent of his audience, the only person in this field with a known ‘past’ proceeded to lecture Ron Paul on morality:
“I don’t think liberty means libertine. I don’t think liberty means absence of value. None of the founding fathers thought liberty meant that. The pursuit of happiness in the 18th century Enlightenment meant wisdom and virtue…. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787… says ‘religion, morality and knowledge being important, we need schools.’ It was the Pelosi House that cut off the first three words and said ‘knowledge being important’. None of the Founding Fathers would have said education without character is useful. They would have said it’s in fact dangerous.”
This is classic Gingrich. Cut loose from the severe time constraints of the earlier debates, he proceeds to shoot his mouth off, appearing to speak with great historical seriousness and rectitude, while in fact saying almost nothing.
No one said liberty meant libertine. Gingrich’s critique was a complete straw man argument. Ron Paul’s point was in no way a defence of libertinism, but rather of the freedom to choose one’s path, be it right or wrong, and with full acceptance that one will ultimately be held accountable for one’s choices. This freedom, incidentally, is specifically protected in Sec. 14, Art. 1 of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, to wit: “No person, demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner, shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments….” Paul was arguing for nothing more.
Furthermore, the “pursuit of happiness in the 18th century” did NOT mean “wisdom and virtue.” It meant “the pursuit of happiness.” Nor did it exclude “acquisition,” as Gingrich later claimed. It’s worth recalling that the Founders debated whether to include John Locke’s right to “property” in this basic list of rights, but decided on “happiness” as the more general term. They did not define happiness in the end. That is why it is only the “pursuit” that is protected. No one, and no government, can guarantee its attainment, in part because no government is in a position to define it for everyone. And of course, the pursuit of happiness to which Gingrich alluded gravely is one part of a brief list, the preceding item in which is liberty. Liberty to pursue happiness does not mean laws requiring or framing the parameters of happiness. It means freedom to live virtuously, to be sure, but freedom to live virtuously might reasonably be taken to imply the freedom to live viciously, within the bounds of respecting the life and liberty of others. Paul’s point—like Bachmann’s regarding religious speech—was precisely that freedom is a precondition of moral choice, and that it is in this sense that a free society is a moral one.
How Gingrich took his next step, from this confusion about libertinism to the issue of education, is a mystery. Suddenly we’re talking about the need for moral education, and arguing against Nancy Pelosi. And yet Paul can hardly be claimed to have defended a life without moral education. In fact, he expressly indicates the contrary: “Our values should come from our families and from our church.” The issue, before Gingrich jumped in, was never whether people ought to be encouraged to be moral. The question was whether the law ought to fulfill that function. I suspect that Gingrich, forever cognizant of his Pelosi Problem (global warming hucksterism), was simply looking for any opportunity to distance himself again from his erstwhile partner in hoax. In any case, he had found a way to squeeze two straw men into one ramble.
Next example: In asking the candidates about the loss of “values”, the Luntz/Gingrich alliance fell particularly flat. While Rick Santorum tried to describe the way God helped him win a difficult senate race, Luntz interrupted to ask with a smirk, “Can I ask you then, what message was God sending when you lost your race for the United States Senate?” When Santorum, bouncing back from the sucker punch, joked, “I’ll get to that,” Luntz interjected, “But quickly.”
Luntz then offered the same question to Gingrich, but with the following, soberly-delivered preface: “You have written a great deal about the loss of values in this country, but if you had to identify just one that you specifically want to see re-instilled, and how you would do it, which one would it be?” So let’s recap. Rick Santorum, speaking about how he strengthened his faith while in the Senate, is implicitly called a hypocrite; Newt Gingrich, on the other hand, is a distinguished moralist who has “written a great deal” on the subject. Furthermore, when Santorum began explaining that the culture has been taken over by the irreligious left, Luntz interrupted with, “Why don’t you take it back?” When Santorum attempted to continue his point, Luntz interrupted again with the same accusatory question. (Santorum proceeded to explain exactly how he had in fact worked to do this through his business career.) The intended message: Santorum a weak complainer on morality; Gingrich a sage on the topic. Got that?
Later, when candidates were asked to describe a time when they had been challenged morally, Cain described his battle with stage-four cancer, and the support of his wife during that time. Bachmann spoke of seeing her mother losing everything after divorce, and having to learn to work and help support herself. In the emotional sweepstakes, Santorum owned the moment, describing his moral weakness in deliberately undervaluing his sick baby in order to spare his own feelings. Next came Gingrich, who proceeded to tell a story, not about his own experience, but about the child of a friend, connecting the story to his opposition to Obamacare. Nothing wrong with the point in and of itself, of course, but it lacked any personal reference. More importantly, he explicitly prefaced the point by noting that he was “building on what Rick was saying.” Building on what Rick was saying? There was virtually no connection. (Nor had he or anyone the right to “build on” such a personal tale of soul-searching.) Santorum was talking about a personal moral struggle, and how it became connected to his political views, not giving a stock argument about sick children. Gingrich was merely trying to glom onto Santorum’s moment, and to claim some of its emotionalism for himself.
One last example: The final issue of the forum was the moral justification for war. Ron Paul was asked to speak first (get him out of the way); Gingrich (surprise!) was given the last word—too many words, once again. But the last ones were the key: “This is one of the places where I disagree with some of my friends. You come into our country and you kill thirty-one hundred people, and we will do whatever it takes to eliminate your capacity to threaten us ever again. And I would be tougher and more decisive… and I would say to the government in Iran today, you have a very short time to solve this on your own, and if you don’t we will solve it for you, and we frankly couldn’t care less what the rest of the world thinks….”
The last line received great applause, as it was intended to do, but as with so many of Gingrich’s demagogue episodes, it only plays well with an audience sympathetic to the general sentiments expressed, and only at that initial moment when one is so lost in Gingrich’s cascade of words that one is unable to decipher exactly what he has said. Iran and 9/11? Did he go there? A good emotion-builder in a Republican debate, to be sure—but imagine how it will play in a debate against Obama, with a hostile moderator and a mixed audience. Read it again: “You come into our country and you kill thirty-one hundred people….” Whom does he mean by “You” in that statement? Does he have evidence to support it? Does he even know what he said?
Obama, who can claim to be the man who got Bin Laden, will eat Gingrich for lunch on this issue. And so with many other matters. The “take a bath” line plays well with conservatives, but it’s easy to see, in your mind’s eye, the left trotting out dozens of ‘normal’, well-bathed Americans to talk about their struggles, leaving Gingrich to back-track and qualify his statement, thus looking weak as well as unsympathetic to the plight of fellow citizens.
Then, of course, there is Gingrich’s past support of the individual mandate, his past shilling for Al Gore on climate bunk, his assault on Paul Ryan’s budget plan as “right-wing social engineering,” and a variety of other positions of transitory convenience.
The fantasy of Gingrich as Obama’s worst nightmare is utter nonsense. With the help of the mainstream media, Gingrich would be one of Obama’s easiest victims. The real nemesis of the Obama team, with its hellish record of nation-destroying pseudo-policy, is not a long-winded opportunist, but a consistent, serious-minded constitutionalist.
On November 19th, in Iowa, the Thanksgiving Forum reminded any voter who was watching that a few such people are still in this primary campaign, a campaign in which no real votes have been cast. Let them speak. Find out what a real constitutional debate sounds like. Choose the person whose interpretation of the founding you find most convincing. Vote for that person. Happy Thanksgiving.
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