Gingrich Versus The System

I generally admire Newt Gingrich’s formidable debating skills, and have been thinking how great it would be to have a candidate who won the nomination by doing the hard work of persuading Republican voters he was the best choice for the job, one debate at a time. 

Nominees usually win through a combination of heavy campaign spending, organizational skill, Party connections, packaging, and a strong resume.  The debates are more like an obstacle course they need to survive.  Rick Perry, for example, had everything else going for him, but his campaign was blown away by his debate performances.  This is a sore spot among Perry supporters who think Republican primary voters were foolish to turn their backs on the Texas governor’s strong platform and record of accomplishments.

Among the most urgent reasons Republican voters eliminate candidates after poor debate performances is their conviction that Obama and the media would quickly double-team a GOP nominee who stumbles during general-election debates and press conferences.  Obama will receive endless benefit of the doubt.  No volume of gaffes or delusions will change the official media presumption of his genius and compassion.  The Republican candidate, on the other hand, is one stumble away from becoming a fixture of late-night TV satire, and the target of editorials declaring him the loser of every confrontation.

Gingrich fans are eager to see him tear into Obama, and dubious that Mitt Romney would display half the ferocity against his Democrat opponent that he unleashes against his GOP rivals.  That’s why it was so disheartening to hear Gingrich say this on Monday, as related by CBS News:

“The reporters who run the debates have no interest in asking any question which will affect Obama,” Gingrich told a crowd gathered to see him at the Pensacola airport. “That’s why, as your nominee, I will not accept debates in the fall in which the reporters are the moderators because you don’t need to have a second Obama person on the debate.”

It is not the first time Gingrich has threatened such action during his week in Florida. At a tea party event in Coral Springs last Wednesday, he told the crowd that he would “tolerate” the media-hosted primary debates, but in the general election he would want to set the terms of the debate with the president himself.

“We should be able to talk to the American people without reporters playing gotcha, being clever or having 60-second rules like ‘What would you do about Nigeria in 60 seconds?’ or ‘What’s your answer to Social Security in 30 seconds?'” Gingrich told the enthusiastic crowd.

(Emphasis mine.)  This was followed by Gingrich’s usual call for seven three-hour Lincoln-Douglas-style debates, which is as fanciful as challenging Obama to a Quidditch match.

Comments like this throw away Gingrich’s perceived advantages in debating skill.  Republican candidates caught like deer in the oncoming headlights of media bias have always been a source of dismay for me.  We all know how this works.  There was no excuse for John McCain’s look of surprise and hurt when his reporter buddies from the “Straight Talk Express” suddenly hissed and sank their fangs into his neck.  There is no excuse for Gingrich declaring, in public, that he’ll refuse to debate if reporters are the moderators. 

Note that he did not say “liberal reporters.”  That would have made it worse.  As if the media would obligingly submit to Newt Gingrich’s judgment over which of them were too far Left to be trusted! 

If Gingrich’s refusal to accept debates is taken seriously, he might as well suspend his campaign right now and stop wasting everyone’s time.  If it’s dismissed as hyperbole – meaningless crowd-pleasing chum tossed into the waters of a Republican primary – then he’s compromising his strongest qualification for very little gain, and diminishing his stature by issuing hollow threats.  Gingrich’s low opinion of liberal debate moderators is fairly well seared into the public consciousness at this point.  No further reminders are necessary.

His point about those short sound-bite “gotcha” questions is much better, and something he’s got a fighting chance of correcting before he faces Obama on a debate stage.  But Gingrich should have greater appreciation for the power of the System, which most definitely extends into media coverage.  It’s not entirely a matter of deliberate bias, for even the machinery of the two-party system is linked to the rusty gears and shrieking pistons that have pumped out $16 trillion in debt, and a million pages of regulation.  Even if the media were far less biased than it is, the powers of incumbency would prove a formidable advantage for Obama in 2012.

The System cannot be defeated from the outside.  That’s one reason third-party bids are romantic fantasies.  There are no “red pill” solutions.  The American electorate is part of the System too.  It’s not going to suddenly awaken, scream in horror, and throw off the feeding tubes of insolvent government.  The electorate willingly slipped many of those tubes into its veins, over the course of generations.

To put it simply, the President who really can change everything, and lead us away from the cliff we are hurtling toward, has to get elected first.  That means entering the rigged arena of the general election and prevailing despite the odds.  It’s an incredibly difficult proposition… but someone of Reaganesque stature has to win the game, before he can change the game.  Our victorious gladiator will not be heard complaining pointlessly about the unfairness of it all as he stumbles reluctantly onto the sands and waits for his opponent.