02/01/2012 06:22 pm ET | Updated Feb 01, 2012

Newt Gingrich's Diminished Debate Ambitions

According to Tuesday night's CNN exit polls, one of the few demographic segments that Gingrich won the Florida primary were voters for whom the debates were the "most important factor" in choosing a candidate. In this subset of Florida voters, Gingrich prevailed -- barely! -- pipping Romney by a 40-38 percent margin.

CNN doesn't have results on the same question from South Carolina, where I suspect Gingrich's sharp denunciations of debate moderators Juan Williams and John King did more than anything else to fire up voters and bring them to his side. The thin margin in Florida isn't that surprising, given that his debate performances in that state were not nearly as strong. And I can't help feeling like the way the voters respond to the debates is almost entirely superficial -- after all, lately Rick Santorum has been the one running a clinic on debate technique. But against the backdrop of Mitt and Newt's huge feud, and Newt's own pyrotechnic rages at the media, Santorum's more subtle argumentative arts are getting drowned out.

Nevertheless, Gingrich's result among voters who placed special importance on the debates indicates that the central premise of his candidacy has obtained some modicum of persistence. His argument there is two-fold. First, Gingrich maintains that in a debate with President Barack Obama, he will be better suited at establishing clear ideological contrasts than the "Massachusetts moderate" Romney. Second, his continual conjuring of debate face-offs with Obama are designed to stimulate that part of the electorate that likes to believe that Obama is some sort of stone idiot who can't talk without televised assistance. (A short memory that doesn't recall, say, the 2008 debates, or the March 2010 GOP retreat in Baltimore, is required for that to work.)

And Gingrich's demands for future debates are getting to be more ornate than Jay-Z's tour rider. After NBC staged a debate at which audience members were asked to sit on their hands and refrain from responding to the candidates' arguments, Gingrich registered his strenuous objections. And since then, he's gotten considerably more outlandish, saying that in the general election, he'll refuse to participate in any debates that are moderated by reporters. Of course, Gingrich's dream is to restage the "Lincoln-Douglas debates" of yore -- he wants to meet Obama in seven four-hour contests of endless, unmoderated yammering, before an unrestrained audience.

To that end, it would appear Gingrich has reached out to historians for help in making the case that these tete-a-tetes would benefit the nation. One of the people he contacted was Harry Holzer, historian and author of “The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text.” But in an op-ed in last week's Washington Post, Holzer argues that Gingrich is really overrating those beloved Lincoln-Douglas debates. "As I’ve told Gingrich, the problem is that, as famous as the debates are, their reputation far outweighs their value. And they’re hardly an inspiring model for modern candidates seeking to showcase their oratorical skills," he wrote.

As Holzer points out, those debates were actually sort of a chaotic shitshow:

These lengthy rhetorical bouts tested the endurance of the audiences and the candidates. Rather than inspiring memorable words, they proved for the most part an embarrassment. The encounters were brutally sarcastic, featuring highly personal attacks rather than elevated discourse. And while they were the first major political forums transcribed by stenographers, the debates were not even accurately published. The texts we know today were massaged by partisan editors eager to make their candidate sound less garbled. Newspapers of the era were openly connected to major parties — imagine Fox or MSNBC editing debate tapes before broadcast.

It's also gratifying to know that every nimrod scold who writes endlessly about how the political discourse In America has only recently become debased (usually because of blogging) is wrong and can be dismissed as a tiresome bore:

With little to entertain them outside church and county fairs, Americans flocked by the thousands to political events. Spectators stood for hours, toted banners, hocked wares, fired cannons, downed hard drink and raucously interrupted speakers with hurrahs and harassment — there was no Brian Williams-like proscription against audience response.

It was not uncommon for fistfights to break out in the farthest reaches of these large crowds, where the unamplified voices of the debaters seldom reached. During one debate, a Republican smeared excrement on Douglas’s carriage.

Now, there's virtually no chance that we're going see the "Lincoln Douglas debates" -- excrement smears or no -- restaged during this election cycle, no matter who wins the GOP nomination. The general election debates are run by the Commission on Presidential Debates and are typically staid affairs. And Gingrich, who needs to participate in debates now in order to make the case he'll be the best debater later, isn't going to have the opportunities going forward that he's already had. So the issue of debates is going to lose some salience. In fact, those same exit polls that indicated Gingrich was having success among those who thought debates were important contained other results that suggested diminishing returns. Yes, among voters looking for a "true conservative," Gingrich beat Romney by a 44-11 percent margin. However, for those who placed a higher priority on defeating Obama, Romney was their guy, 58-33 percent.

Still, the irony of Gingrich wanting to get matched up in a series of Lincoln-Douglas debates is delicious. No, they were not the refined venues of presidential oratory and intellectual substance that he makes them out to be. But after reading Holzer's historical recounting, it's pretty clear that Gingrich would have been ideally suited for them.

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