Politics is a matter of people arguing with each other. You’re supposed to watch and decide who makes the most sense, or who is the wittiest – or who is the nastiest, as some folk like the devastating put-down accompanied by a sneer of superiority. That’s a matter of vicarious viciousness – you dare not be nasty yourself, but you wish you were, and your guy really smacked the other guy around. And you smile. Yes, you may be looking for logic – for that someone whose arguments actually hang together. But that’s relatively rare. Most people listen to the back and forth, about this fellow’s record and that fellow’s mistakes, and that other guy’s idiotic indiscretions, and to all the talk of policy and principles and how each sees life in general – and then most people decide which candidate is most like how they see themselves. That’s who they’ll vote for, and that’s identity politics. That worked for Sarah Palin for a time – sure she didn’t know much of anything about anything, and showed no inclination to learn anything about the issues, but many said that didn’t matter. She was one of us – proud and angry – and the matter was settled. That other stuff, the stuff about being able to govern, or even wanting to, was unimportant, or at least secondary. Ah, she’s just like me. That was what mattered. Luckily there were enough people who sensed what a disaster she would have been in office. Still, she was riding high for a time. Politics is an odd business. Who should run things? How do we decide?
And now the Republican race, to decide who will run against Obama in 2012, is heating up with, at the moment, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich kind of the last two left standing. All the others have faded – Trump, Bachmann, Perry and Cain – and all the others never even got started. And the two left standing have started to hammer each other, hoping we’ll decide which of the two of them is… something. They are not exactly appealing to logic. It’s more as if they want to offer Republican voters a possible identity – the way Republicans should be these days. And Slate’s David Weigel explains the state of play as of Monday, December 12:
Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have spent the day engaged in a shooting war over their private sector experience. Let’s start off with an understanding: Mitt should win an argument like this. He has been running, all year, as a “business guy.” He leads speeches with talk of his years at Bain Capital, not his four years governing Massachusetts. Newt Gingrich’s private sector experience began when he left the speaker’s office.
“I offered strategic advice,” said Gingrich, when Ron Paul challenged him on his consulting work for Freddie Mac. “I was in the private sector. And I was doing things in the private sector. And when you’re in the private sector, and you have a company and you offer advice like McKinsey does, like a bunch of other companies do, you’re allowed to charge money for it.”
That was at the most recent debate, and Weigel notes that Ron Paul laughed out loud at Gingrich’s answer, and adds this:
Gingrich only really got away with it because he was debating someone who didn’t want to (or know how to) parry it.
But by Monday morning the Romney campaign had figured out how to parry it, and they hit Gingrich with a statement from Tom Stemberg, founder of Staples. And that is one of the companies whose success Romney takes some credit for, from his days at Bain Capital Management. And Stemberg gave the late response:
Newt Gingrich comes from the world where politicians are paid millions after they retire to influence their friends in Washington. Mitt Romney comes from the private sector, where the economy is built by hard work and entrepreneurial drive. It’s clear that after thirty years as a Washington insider, Newt Gingrich has no clue how the real world economy works. After twenty-five years in business, Mitt Romney understands how jobs come and go, and what we need to do to get our economy back on track. If Newt Gingrich is our party’s nominee, the choice in next year’s election will be between two professional politicians, two Washington insiders – two people with no experience in the real world of job creation.
Don’t you hate it when your witty comeback to something said on Saturday night finally occurs to you on Monday morning? But better late than never, and the Newt-is-just-like-Obama jab was pretty good. Neither Gingrich nor Obama has been a wheeler-dealer in capital management, using leveraged money to buy out successful companies, dismantle them, extract as much money as possible and sell what’s left, if anything is left. Neither has ever been a businessman of that sort. So they don’t know the real world.
And Gingrich’s counterattack was what you would expect:
I would just say that if Gov. Romney would like to give back all of the money he’s earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain, that I would be glad to listen to him. I’ll bet you $10, not $10,000, that he won’t take the offer.
Weigel notes that this was the same attack on Romney that Democrats used in 1994 and 2002 – that Bain made money not through job-creation but by their turnarounds of companies, dismantling them. But Weigel finds the whole thing odd:
Does this make sense? I’m not asking if it makes sense as an attack – does the logic train chug along from station to station, or not? Shaming a businessman about the people he’s “bankrupted” and “laid off” sounds like the work of an Occupier, not a private-enterprise loving conservative. Yes, it’s true that Bain was not a job creation machine. Romney’s being disingenuous when he says it was. But there’s a perfectly respectable conservative ethos that defends what Bain did, arguing that the only responsibility of a corporation is to make money.
So Weigel reads it this way:
Given a chance to attack Romney, Gingrich suggests that there was something not just mean, but unfair, about Romney making money by maximizing profit for Bain. But he suggests implicitly that his private sector life – collecting money from large donors to give speeches and consult on policy – was ideal.
What are the Republican masses to make of that? You can identify with the cold ruthless businessman, who destroys jobs and leaves the lives of tens of thousands in ruins, or you can identify with the guy who cleverly skims the system in something like a series of scams, and gets rich doing it. That’s not much of a choice.
Of course another take on this comes from John Dickerson, writing an item on America’s Greatest Attack Politician – and that would be the “ruthlessly brilliant” Newt Gingrich:
For a candidate who talks about being nice to his opponents, Newt Gingrich sure knows how to make them suffer. Today, when Mitt Romney suggested Gingrich return the $1.6 million he was paid by Freddie Mac, the former speaker shot back that Romney should return the money he earned “from bankrupting companies and laying off employees” as a venture capitalist. When asked about Michele Bachmann’s critique of his immigration position, former college professor Gingrich compared her to a dumb student. “Occasionally I’d have a student who couldn’t figure out where things were, or what things were, or what the right date was. When that happens, you feel sorry that they’re so factually challenged.”
To be fair, these aren’t attacks. They’re counterattacks, but Gingrich offers them with such ease, speed, and force, it’s as if his earlier pledge of restraint was just a way to rope-a-dope his rivals into thinking he wouldn’t retaliate.
He will, and Dickerson maintains that while Gingrich’s opponents seem sure that attacking him is a smart and necessary strategy, they may be miscalculating:
The cumulative effect of these attacks may not be to weaken him but to provide a stage for his fighting side. And showing his eagerness to mix it up may well help him in a year when Republicans are fixated on defeating the incumbent.
That party wants someone nasty, and Newt’s their guy. And his rivals, goading him into these all-too-easy devastating counterattacks, are helping him prove he’s that guy:
In Saturday’s debate in Iowa, Gingrich’s opponents explained why they were in the best position to run against Barack Obama. But while the other candidates talked about being able to take it to Obama, Gingrich showed how he would do it by parrying the attacks. When Romney called Gingrich a career politician, Gingrich shot back that Romney would have been one too if he’d been good enough to beat Ted Kennedy for his Senate seat.
And he shows no mercy:
Asked about a Bachmann’s snipe against him regarding the individual mandate, he dismissed her by referring to her assertion earlier in the campaign that the Revolutionary War started in Concord, New Hampshire, not Concord, Massachusetts… “Have you been in Concord?” he asked. “Go to Concord sometime and I’ll talk to you later about Mrs. Bachmann.”
And Dickerson puts it this way:
Gingrich, in fact, is the MacGyver of attack politics, perhaps the most effective and resourceful attacking politician of the modern era. He includes an attack strategy in nearly every policy proposal. When he announced his plan to allow private Social Security accounts, he said he would sell it by using clips from Obama interviews in which the president suggested people might not get their Social Security checks. He taunts the president into debating him. “He can even use a teleprompter.”
Dickerson offers more examples and detail, but you get the idea. Newt is the nasty and smart man, who can take down Obama, who can be the Smartest Man in Room, for real, except Stephen Budiansky says you need to see what you’re really getting:
I have been perplexed for some time why Newt Gingrich is routinely acknowledged even by his bitter enemies within the Republican Party as a “genius,” but the answer turns out is simple: he acts exactly like one of those obnoxious elitist intellectual know-it-alls that the right-wing no-nothings think is the hallmark of an intellectual. He is constantly reminding us of his doctorate in history; he routinely claims he understands issues more deeply than anyone else; he has made a career of denouncing or (when he had the authority) eliminating professional expertise that might challenge his own certain pronouncements; and he is a veritable fount of crackpot “big” ideas – mining minerals on the moon, protecting the United States from sci-fi doomsday scenarios, and “fundamentally transforming” everything as a first step to doing anything.
And across the pond, in the Spectator (UK), Alex Massie sees what’s going on here, and compares Newt Gingrich to John Kerry:
Nominating Gingrich – that is, choosing the guy who makes you feel best about your team and doing so for kicks and the hell of it – might almost make sense if he were tasked with challenging a nigh-on unassailable incumbent. But the Republican nominee has a decent shot at winning the White House. This is not 1984 and nor is it 1972 or 1964. Selecting Gingrich would be an act of unpardonable folly and a declaration that the Republican Party has lost its political bearings. That’s fine but it’s not serious politics. Newt isn’t Kerry, he’s Howard Dean. (And worse than that: he’s also Newt!)
And John Heilemann compares Romney to Bob Dole and Gingrich to Pat Buchanan:
It wasn’t just the Establishment rallying around Dole that slayed the dragon that threatened to trample over him; it was Dole himself suiting up in chainmail and running a sword through Buchanan’s heart. If Romney can do the same to Gingrich, he will have earned his party’s nomination – and if he can’t, he never deserved the fucking thing in the first place.
Mitt should fight back! He can be the next Bob Dole! No, wait…. Those Brits are an odd lot.
But there is Newt Gingrich’s idea that Mr Obama should meet him for a series of Lincoln-Douglas debates – so we’d see who’s the best man, or the nastiest man, or something, and in the Economist, Will Wilkerson has some interesting ideas around that:
Personally, I think everyone who wants to debate the president should get a chance to do so. Maybe Barack Obama should spend a little less time in the situation room and a bit more time preparing for a series of multi-hour engagements with a man who may or may not be his opponent in next year’s election. What is he, some kind of elitist? So I’m sympathetic to Newt Gingrich’s idea…
But he also agrees with the New York Times’ Ross Douthat, who finds it quite odd that Gingrich’s debating skills have become sort of the main selling point for his candidacy. Specifically, Douthat argues here that Republican primary voters seems to be reacting to a perceived advantage over Obama’s rhetorical skill, but may be overreacting. Wilkerson says that “this revenge-of-the-nerds thing has never propelled anyone to the presidency” and Douthat says this:
“How does a Columbia-Harvard graduate, who was the editor of the law review … supposedly the best orator in the Democratic Party,” Gingrich asked recently, “how does he look himself in the mirror and say he’s afraid to debate a West Georgia College professor?”
It’s a line that evokes a kind of conservative revenge fantasy, in which the liberal elitists who sneered at George W. Bush’s malapropisms and Sarah Palin’s “you betchas” receive their richly deserved comeuppance at the hands of Newton Gingrich, Ph.D.
Wilkerson says a fantasy is all it is, and cites the American Spectator’s Quin Hillyer here calling this “the fallacy of the master debater” – which Wilkerson summarizes as “the belief that elections turn on dramatic rhetorical confrontations, in which the smarter and better-spoken candidate exposes his rival as a tongue-tied boob.”
But his notion is that is utter nonsense:
Indeed, it’s an article of faith among American political pundits that voters tend to favor the candidate they’d rather have a beer with. This dismays some observers – as recently as 2004, intellectuals were ready to cast themselves into the sea over the idea that a majority of voters would favor Mr Bush over the comparatively well-spoken John Kerry – but it’s not illogical. There are some countries where debating skills are important in themselves; in Britain, for example, the prime minister routinely faces direct questioning.
But America doesn’t have anything like that. Apart from elections, there are few events where a politician needs or even has the opportunity to showcase the verbal agility that characterizes a good debater. To the extent that debating or speaking are important, it’s because they are taken as a manifestation of underlying intelligence, reason, education and judgment. Or as the semiologists would say, a politician’s rhetoric is the signifier rather than the signified.
However, it’s neither necessary nor sufficient for proving that those qualities exist. As a separate issue, it’s not clear that all of those qualities are equally important in a campaign or, for that matter, in a presidency. Recall Oliver Wendell Holmes’ judgment of Franklin Roosevelt: “a second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament.”
But you know how Republicans are:
Over the past few years there have been some perplexing trends in the intellectual underpinnings of the Republican Party – up with Hayek, down with Darwin. But I think Mr Douthat is right that the sudden interest in debating acumen has more to do with Mr Obama’s perceived strengths than anything else.
And the debate-to-end-all-debates specifics here are a real issue:
The Lincoln-Douglas debates had a highly regimented format: an hour-long opening from one, a 90-minute rebuttal from the other, and a half-hour rejoinder to wrap it up. Unless Mr Gingrich has something different in mind, he’s suggesting a format that favors Mr Obama’s rhetorical strengths rather than his own. Mr Obama doesn’t necessarily have a differential advantage in debating. It’s more accurate to say that the president is an unusually good orator and at crucial points in his career he has offered strikingly good prepared remarks – thoughtful, logical, ordered and convincing. Mr Gingrich, by contrast, is nimble with a comeback and he has an unusually fertile imagination, meaning he’s rarely caught without something to say under questioning or challenge, but the audience’s appetite for a 90-minute Gingrich speech is largely untested.
Given his goals, I would say that this madcap idea is one that belongs on his personal scrap heap.
I’m not so sure it’s a terrible idea. The primary debates have become reality show contests. Better to change the format entirely. And in so far as Gingrich really does have an expansive, distinctive and intermittently unhinged politics, I think a fleshing out of it would be helpful. One general rule is that the longer Gingrich speaks, the less people like him; another is that he’s better at the put-down and come-back than the grand theory. So bring it on!
No, don’t. That’s not how we choose our leaders on this side of the pond.
But this is just getting weird:
Over the past few years, there’s been much talk about some talk about a kind of “Republican Civil War” between the old-dog GOP establishment and the newly energized Tea Party. This past weekend though, Glenn Beck did something impressive when he managed to piss them both off during an appearance on Fox Business Network. He annoyed the establishment by saying they were filled with progressives and that the only difference between Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama was that he was white and he annoyed the Tea Party by asking them if that was why they liked him. And if that weren’t enough to get Republicans angry at him, today Beck said that, were Gingrich to get the nomination, he’d consider voting for a Ron Paul third party run, something many assume would give the election to Obama.
And there’s this:
Conservative radio host Michael Savage is offering Republican presidential frontrunner Newt Gingrich $1 million if he drops out of the GOP race within the next 72 hours, according to a message on his website.
“Newt Gingrich is unelectable. Mitt Romney is the only candidate with a chance of defeating Barack Obama, and there is nothing more important than that for the future health, safety, and security of the United States of America,” the statement read. “Therefore I am offering Newt Gingrich one million dollars to drop out of the presidential race for the sake of the nation.”
And there’s this:
In a new radio ad launched by the Romney campaign in Iowa last week, Romney turns to conservative fire-breather Ann Coulter to make the case that he’s the most electable candidate in the Republican race. Having made a living off saying things that no politician would likely wish to be closely associated with, it’s an interesting choice – and a sign that Romney is going all out to cast himself as the more pure conservative choice to Gingrich.
Identity politics can get weird. Some of us prefer the calm and thoughtful man who thinks things through, invariably polite and courteous. But that’s identity politics too. Perhaps there should be an impressive big Obama-Gingrich debate, but it wouldn’t change anything. We vote who we are.