POLITICS
04/04/2013 02:03 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2013

New Gingrich Objects To RNC Autopsy, Wants To Retain Current Soul-Destroying Number Of Debates

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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