As you may have heard, the recent "autopsy" report furnished by the Republican National Committee in the wake of losing the 2012 presidential election focused on more than just policy and politics. It also entertained making substantial reforms to process. Among the suggestions were the idea of pushing the Republican National Convention to an earlier date on the campaign calendar, altering the primary process to make it more compact and swift, and limiting the number of primary-season debates after they swelled to unprecedented bloat during the pre-nomination season of 2012.
Romney campaign strategist Stuart Stevens heard the news about limiting the debates and said (I am paraphrasing), "Yea, verily, there is wisdom here, sing out!" I largely agreed with his assessment that the prospect of having between 20 and 40 candidate debates between May 2015 and March 2016 would likely be an extinction-level event for the nation. What the debate over debates was lacking, however, was the perspective of someone deeply in love with hearing their own voice. Until now, anyway. As Katrina Trinko reports today, "Unlike the Republican National Committee, former House speaker Newt Gingrich doesn’t want to curb the number of presidential debates."
Gah, here we go:
Gingrich, who developed significant momentum in the 2012 primary with his debate performances, says debates sharpen a potential nominee. “The goal is to win the general election,” he said. “If you’re saying to me ‘Gee, we’re going to have a candidate so stupid we have to protect him from hurting himself, therefore let’s have the fewest possible debates.’ This is the World Series of power,” he explained.
In such a scenario, “We [will find out] in the first debate how really dumb he is,” he said, chuckling. Mitt Romney, he argued, was “strengthened” by the number of primary debates in which he participated.
See, to my mind, the point of the primary season debates are to win the primaries, and thus the nomination, as opposed to the "general election." I think that Gingrich only believes that the primary debates are the "World Series of Power" because that's as far as he got in 2012. Like the Pittsburgh Pirates, Gingrich was sitting at home in October.
I am really not sure why Gingrich sees limiting debates as a means of "protecting" candidates. Especially since, in the next breath, he suggests that it takes a single debate to ferret out those who aren't ready for prime time. This is an argument for having fewer debates, not more, unless you are some sort of sadist who delights in repeat, sub-par performances from Rick Perry.
I'm honestly trying to remember who, specifically, got "sharper" as the debates wore on. Romney's principal strategy through the bulk of that process was simply to keep his head while everyone around him was losing theirs. Rick Santorum probably was the "sharpest" overall debater -- working his way from the sides of the stage to the center by jumping into dead air to answer questions and deploying solid forensic arguments -- but he was at peak sharpness from the outset out of necessity. Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann flamed out all over the stage almost immediately. Their subsequent performances were basically like watching Commedia dell'Arte clowns rework their lazzi for adoring, gaffe-happy audiences. Ron Paul was Ron Paul. Jon Huntsman occasionally demonstrated that he could vibrate his vocal chords with oxygen and form words. The strongest case he made for anything during the primary season was the case he made for "Trout Mask Replica."
This will probably surprise nobody, but Gingrich I feel is operating from a frame-of-reference that places Newt Gingrich at the center. As I said in my previous piece on the matter, the goal of the candidate debate is to determine a nominee, not to establish or prop up a person's political brand. And in 2012, this was the activity that Gingrich was primarily concerned with pursuing. Sure, there were moments where his rivalry with Romney got personal and Gingrich summoned some scorched-earth rhetoric. And I believe there were moments where Gingrich thought he could legitimately entertain the notion of winning the nomination.
But you can't square those momentary lapses into honest competition with the way Gingrich carried himself during the debate season. He spent an inordinate amount of time defending all the GOP competitors against the depredations of the media, haughtily refusing to take the opportunity to break with his fellows and establish interesting contrasts that may have set him apart from the field, in order to condemn lines of questioning that Gingrich found to be divisive. In this way, he cut against the primary purpose of the primary debates -- creating an opportunity to learn and discern what, specifically, set each contender apart from the others. In this way, Gingrich often seemed to be playing the role as conservative movement envoy, sent to defend the entire field from having to compare each other's policy positions, as opposed to playing the role of competitor.
Beyond that, Gingrich was constantly asserting his own world-historical pretensions, frequently implying that he deserved a more lofty setting. And if Trinko's report is any guide, he's still at it:
As far as moderators go, Gingrich, who famously sparred with CNN’s John King over the appropriateness of a question during one primary debate, said he’d like to see moderators removed the debate process all together. “I prefer the Lincoln-Douglas approach, where the two candidates ask each other questions,” he said. “This idea, that we’re delegating power to randomly chosen reporters to decide what to ask the potential president of the United States, is wonderful if you’re a reporter, but it’s a fairly absurd idea if you think about it.”
Oh, lawsy, not the Lincoln-Douglas debates again! Gingrich was always nattering on and on about how we needed to return to the "Lincoln-Douglas" format, which would allow competitors to simply stage unmoderated arias of high-proof bloviation, lasting sixty minutes at a stretch. Gingrich actually managed to coax Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman -- two of the guys who we definitely needed to see less of -- into indulging in this ritual abuse. The results were not memorable, even to Gingrich, whose primary takeaway was that they were "fun in part ... because at one point Huntsman goes off speaking Chinese.”
Yeah, I tell you what, the American voters got a lot out of that sometime-fun time Jon Huntsman spoke Chinese.
Gingrich, of course, remembers the Lincoln-Douglas debates with a greater fondness than they deserve. As Harold Holzer pointed out, "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."
To understand Lincoln-Douglas, we must remember a time when politics focused the frenzy that is today captured by the Super Bowl and “American Idol.” 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. Such diversions helped audiences endure outdoor marathons at which the opening speaker held forth for an hour, the responder took 90 minutes, and the first debater topped off with a half-hour rejoinder — unthinkable in today’s sound-bite culture.
And as Jim Lehrer wrote in his book on presidential debates, Tension City, these debates were were essentially sponsored by cheap propagandists:
They were organized by two newspapermen -- Joseph Medill and Charles Ray -- who were open supporters of Lincoln. After each debate, Medill and Ray made sure the press coverage was full and favorable to Lincoln. In other words, it was a 2008-like media-run exercise, complete with post-debate spinning and pre-debate negotiations.
And Douglas' media allies were doing much the same. You have to love the irony, here: Newt Gingrich, enemy of media excess, wants to return to a debate format that was birthed from it.
Apparently, Gingrich has not "ruled out" a 2016 run. This is to be expected. Over the many decades of entertaining presidential ambitions, Gingrich has proven to be much better at not ruling out a presidential run than he has actually running for president. Whatever he chooses to do, you can be sure that he is ready to debate all comers. Let them unfold, I say. But let's not point a bunch of TV cameras at it.
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Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/16/sarah-palin-cpac-speech-2013_n_2856977.html?utm_hp_ref=politics" target="_blank">slammed </a>President Barack Obama on his gun background checks: <a href="http://huff.to/16zUwiG" target="_blank">"More background checks? Dandy idea, Mr. President. We should have started with yours.”</a>
Palin <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/16/sarah-palin-cpac-speech-2013_n_2856977.html?utm_hp_ref=politics" target="_blank">joked proudly about her and her husband's gun ownership </a>while making a passing remark about her breasts: <a href="http://huff.to/10W6dMC" target="_blank">"Todd got the rifle, I've got the rack."</a>
Palin paused to <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/16/sarah-palin-cpac-speech-2013_n_2856977.html?utm_hp_ref=politics" target="_blank">take a sip from a 'Big Gulp'</a>: <a href="http://huff.to/Wv9ZN0" target="_blank">"Bloomberg's not around. Don't worry."</a>
Not accounting for America's severe hunger problem, Dr. Ben Carson <a href="http://huff.to/Z5EDci" target="_blank">implied</a> that charities were enough to provide for those in need of assistance: “Nobody is starving on the streets. We’ve always taken care of them. It is not the government’s responsibility.”
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) touted conservatism as <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/16/michele-bachmann-cpac-_n_2890721.html?utm_hp_ref=politics" target="_blank">"the movement of love."</a>
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich <a href="http://huff.to/111qeVZ" target="_blank">inadvertently</a> echoed Obama's push for "new ideas," referencing <a href="http://huff.to/159VPBx" target="_blank">technological advancement</a>: "We don't need new principles, but we need lots of ideas about how to implement those principles in the 21st century."
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) made <a href="http://huff.to/XQfwP9" target="_blank">familiar </a> remarks urging conservatives to transition “people from government dependence to true independence.”
Former presidential hopeful Mitt Romney <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20130315/us-republicans-conservatives/" target="_blank">apologized</a> for not winning the 2012 election: "I am sorry that I will not be your president," Romney <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20130315/us-republicans-conservatives/" target="_blank">said</a>, "But I will be your co-worker."
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) delivered a rather sobering keynote speech, emphasizing that the GOP must stop being the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/15/jeb-bush-cpac-speech-2013_n_2857496.html" target="_blank">"anti-everything"</a> party: "Here’s reality: if you’re fortunate enough to count yourself among the privileged, much of the rest of the nation is drowning."
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) made a reference to running for president while making a rather <a href="http://huff.to/YwLMm2" target="_blank">questionable weight joke </a>involving New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R): "The truth is – I am too skinny to run. At least that's what my friend Chris Christie keeps telling me."
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) made a surprise visit to CPAC and introduced former presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The second surprise? <a href="https://twitter.com/aterkel/status/312616568020402176" target="_blank"> Bangs.</a>
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum accused Obama of using philosophies from the <a href="http://huff.to/YwrKYT" target="_blank">French Revolution</a>: Obama "wants to exchange the 'why' of the American Revolution for the 'why' of the French Revolution."
Bachmann <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/14/2013-cpac-_n_2856800.html#201_michele-bachmann-totally-loves-bloggers" target="_blank">expresses her love for bloggers</a> while handing out the 'Blogger of the Year' award at CPAC: “Bloggers are where it’s at!”
National Rifle Association (NRA) CEO Wayne LaPierre <a href="https://twitter.com/eScarry/status/312578797683744768" target="_blank"> isn't bothered by </a> his recent bad publicity: "The liberal media can keep hating on me."
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) had some <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/15/paul-ryan-cpac-speech-2013_n_2869807.html?utm_hp_ref=paul-ryan" target="_blank">choice words</a> for <a href="https://twitter.com/samsteinhp/status/312562941255876608" target="_blank">liberals</a>: "Chaos is fertile soil for liberalism."
Ryan references the smoke coming up from the chimney at the Vatican to the budget presented by the senate: "We got white smoke from the Vatican and a budget from the Senate!"
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/15/mitch-mcconnell-cpac_n_2865017.html?1363355375" target="_blank"> referenced the "The Golden Girls"</a> in his speech: "Don't tell me Democrats are the party of the future," he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/15/mitch-mcconnell-cpac_n_2865017.html?1363355375" target="_blank">said</a>, "when their presidential ticket looks like a rerun of the Golden Girls."
Outspoken celebrity business mogul Donald Trump <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/15/donald-trump-cpac-speech-2013_n_2870121.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000003" target="_blank">criticized the country's leadership</a>: "We're run by either very foolish or very stupid people."
Sen. Marco Rubio
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) references marriage equality: "Just because I believe that states should have the right to define marriage in the traditional way does not make me a bigot." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/14/marco-rubio-cpac-speech-2013_n_2869795.html?1363285855" target="_blank">Watch his full speech here.</a>
Sen. Marco Rubio
Rubio emphasizes that America doesn't need new ideas: "We don't need a new idea. There is an idea. The idea is called America and it still works." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/14/marco-rubio-cpac-speech-2013_n_2869795.html?1363285855" target="_blank">Watch his full speech here.</a>
Sen. Marco Rubio
Rubio makes a dig at student loans: "Not everyone needs to go to a four year liberal arts college." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/14/marco-rubio-cpac-speech-2013_n_2869795.html?1363285855" target="_blank">Watch his full speech here.</a>
Sen. Marco Rubio
Rubio<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/14/marco-rubio-cpac_n_2869792.html?1363286853" target="_blank"> mocks </a> his awkward sip of water.
Sen. Rand Paul
Paul criticized the cancellation of White House tours due to budget cuts: "Mr. President, maybe we could have cut the robotic squirrel before we went to White House tours." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/14/rand-paul-cpac-speech-2013_n_2869611.html?1363286002" target="_blank">Watch his full CPAC speech here.</a>
Sen. Rand Paul
Paul criticized the state of his own party: "The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/14/rand-paul-cpac-speech-2013_n_2869611.html?1363286002" target="_blank">Watch his full CPAC speech here.</a>
Sen. Rand Paul
Paul continued to criticize President Obama on his drone policy: "My 13-hour filibuster was a message to the president: good intentions are not enough." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/14/rand-paul-cpac-speech-2013_n_2869611.html?1363286002" target="_blank">Watch his full CPAC speech here.</a>
Rep. Louie Gohmert
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) suggested gay marriage was putting the U.S. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/14/louie-gohmert-cpac-gay-marriage-_n_2877354.html" target="_blank">“on the road to the dust bin of history.”</a>
Sen. Pat Toomey
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) reminisced about the 2012 campaign: "I remain haunted by the experience of the 2012 campaign." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/14/pat-toomey-cpac-speech-2013_n_2869994.html?utm_hp_ref=pat-toomey" target="_blank">Watch his full speech here.</a>
Sen. Mike Lee
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/14/mike-lee-cpac_n_2864901.html" target="_blank">suggested</a> Americans needed to do more to form bonds in civil society. Lee shared an anecdote regarding his trip to a salad bar in Southern Utah: "I invite each one of you to square your shoulders and be 'on salad,'" <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/14/mike-lee-cpac_n_2864901.html" target="_blank">said Lee</a>. "In that sense, we are all 'on salad.'"
Gov. Rick Perry
Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) suggested Medicaid required reform: "We need a Medicaid program that emphasizes personal responsibility with co-pays on a sliding scale, deductibles and premium payments for emergency room care, small contributions so patients take ownership over their utilization of care."
Gov. Rick Perry
Perry had this to say about government spending: "Washington doesn't worry about how to pay bills, they just charge it to our grandchildren's account."