The Myth Of Newt Gingrich The Great Debater

Conservatives seem to believe that Newt Gingrich can beat Barack Obama merely by debating him. They are delusional.

One of the things that you hear most frequently from supporters of Newt Gingrich in his favor is the idea that, were he to become the Republican nominee for President, he would be a formidable debate opponent for President Obama. In fact, most of them seem convinced, based on little more than Gingrich’s performance in the multi-candidate joint press appearances that have passed for debates in this election cycle, that he would “out debate” the President quite easily. Gingrich himself has reinforced this idea by saying repeatedly that, upon becoming the GOP nominee, he would immediately challenge the President to a regular series of “Lincoln-Douglas style debates” that would stretch from the summer to Election Day.

I’ve always been skeptical of this idea that Newt Gingrich could win the General Election just be humiliating the President in a series of debates. First of all, the entire premise is based on how he’s performed in these multi-candidate forums where the job for each of the candidates is to appeal to as many Republicans as possible. The task in a General Election Debate is quite different, and would require Gingrich to make the case to voters who might not be sympathetic to him at all for why the President isn’t entitled to a second term in office. You simply don’t do that by being an aggressive, bombastic hard-core conservatives. If Gingrich performs in one-on-one debates with Obama the same way he has in the Republican debates, he’s likely to turn away independent and swing-state voters. I discussed the other problems with the Gingrich-as-the-great-debater scenario last month:

For one thing, the format of those debates is going to be far, far different from the debates that Gingrich has participated in so far. The moderator and reporters will mostly likely predominantly be from mainline news organizations, and the questions are likely to be far more detailed, for one thing. For another, Gingrich would be standing next to the President of the United States, not just a bunch of people who think they can be President. The difficulty of competing with that image shouldn’t be underestimated, just ask people like Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, and John Kerry. Finally, I think Republicans vastly underestimate how the President is likely to come across in those debates, and overestimate how well Gingrich will do. Say what you will about the President, but Barack Obama is no slouch as a debater, something he proved during the primary race with Hillary Clinton in 2008 and in the General Election.The idea that he’s going to cower in fear over Newt Gingrich is just silly. As for Gingrich, the same qualities that have helped in appeal to GOP voters in the Republican debates could make him come across as arrogant and egomaniacal in the more disciplined atmosphere of a General Election debate. Those Republicans eager for a Newt-Obama matchup on debate nights should be careful what they wish for.

Not every conservative buys into the myth of Newt’s debating skills, though. John Ziglar, who’s been behind several films that have been popular on the right as well as being a prominent Palin booster, isn’t buying it either:

First of all, there is absolutely zero chance that Obama would agree to the debate format which Newt pretends he could somehow force the sitting president to accept. The only way to dictate the terms of such an event is to be ahead in the polls and to have the media take up your cause to pressure the other side. Newt has about as much chance of either of those things being reality as he does getting his second wife to tape a campaign ad for him.

Quite simply, that isn’t happening, and yet absolutely no one ever even bothers to point this out.

Once forced to combat the president in a clash of 60-second sound bites refereed by Obama’s politically-correct buddies, Newt’s supposedly great debating strengths will backfire badly. In a Republican primary, his haymakers draw cheers from the partisan crowd and the commentators marvel at what a crafty street brawler he is. In a general election debate, the crowd of “independents” will boo and the very same “news” people will suddenly he horrified by the bull who just smashed their china shop to bits.

For example, let’s take the most recent debate. Newt somehow got rave reviews for calling his ex-wife a liar (after saying that morning that he wouldn’t say anything negative about her) and angrily lambasting the media for asking a legitimate question. CNN’s panel universally praised Newt’s answer as the highlight of the debate (this, despite the fact that he guaranteed that everyone in the country would know he has an ex-wife who hates him because the clip of him fuming was assured to get tons of airtime).

Does anyone really believe that if a similar circumstance occurred against Obama that Newt would be let off the hook like that? At best he would be portrayed as angry, unhinged, and lacking the temperament to be president of the United States. At worst, they would make him seemed like a rabid, uncaged, animal and, inevitably, maybe even racist.

Newt would be disarmed in this fight on multiple levels. First, he would lose the expectations game before he even started. Then, knowing his bar would be nearly impossible to hurdle; his massive ego would provoke him into lunging for a knockout on every punch. This would play right into the hands of the super coolheaded Obama who will be confident knowing that the referees will score anything his way as long as he simply stays on his feet.

In short, the whole affair would be an unmitigated disaster

I don’t typically agree with Ziglar, and I think his talk about the media being out to get conservatives is mostly silly nonsense, but he’s absolutely right in his assessment of what’s likely to happen if Newt debates Obama. As he said, there’s no chance the Obama campaign is going to agree to Gingrich’s “Lincoln-Douglas” debates, they will stick with the schedule that has already been set by the Commission on Presidential Debates, which calls for three Presidential debates and one Vice-Presidential debate starting in late September. That’s the schedule that we’ve been following since at least 1992, and Gingrich really has no argument for changing something that has been followed for 20 years now. Secondly, as Ziglar notes, the idea that Gingrich would be able to be as free-ranging in one of these debates as has been in the General Election debates ignores 20 years of history, along with the fact that acting like a jerk while standing next to the President isn’t exactly the way to win friends and influence people.

I’m convinced that Gingrich’s supporters, and perhaps Gingrich himself, think that Newt would be able to repeat what Ronald Reagan did in 1980. In that election, there was only one debate between him and President Carter, and it occurred just one week before Election Day. Prior to the debate, Reagan and Carter were basically even in the polls and it was unclear if Reagan would be able to pull off a victory notwithstanding the state of the economy and Carter’s other flaws. After the debate, Reagan began to pull away in the polling and was able to pull off a landslide victory that sent Carter back to Georgia.

There are just a few problems with this particular fantasy.

For one thing, Barack Obama is not Jimmy Carter. As I noted above, Obama is quite good in one-on-one debates himself and he’s unlikely to come across the same way Carter did in October 1980. Secondly, as I’ve noted before, Newt Gingrich is no Ronald Reagan. Unlike Reagan, Gingrich is not going to come across as a likeable person to people not already predisposed to agree with him on ideology or policy. Reagan got the votes of the Reagan Democrats not only because of what he said, but how he said it. As many remarked at the time and in the years that have passed, it was hard to dislike Reagan even if you disagreed with him. In Newt’s case, it’s hard to like him even if you agree with him completely. In fact, the entire logic of the Gingrich supporters seems to be that they’re supporting him because he’s a bombastic, in-your-face, guy who comes across as kind of a jerk, not in spite of it. It’s hard to see someone like that winning the hearts and minds of independent voters in swing states.

If this is the logic that is causing conservatives to rally behind an ethically and morally flawed big government conservative who betrayed the Republican Revolution while he was Speaker and lobbied Congress to pass the biggest entitlement program since Medicare, then they are in for a huge surprise on the night of November 6th.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. anjin-san says:

    Newt 2012 – Leave no trophy wife behind…

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    The Republican base wants red meat dog whistles and that’s what Newt gives them. You are correct – no one outside the base is going to be buying.

  3. mattb says:

    But… but… Teleprompter.

  4. Gingrich may or may not be a master debater, but he certainly is a cunning linguist.

  5. Ben Wolf says:

    I think the President is more intelligent, more analytical and more mentally and emotionally disciplined than Newt Gingrich. In the debates I fully expect Newt’s bombastic armada to founder on Obama’s intellectual shoal. We would watch Gingrich hurl broadside after broadside at the President only to see them have absolutely no effect.

    I’ve seen these two types in many other debates and the end is usually a foregone conclusion.

  6. Hey Norm says:

    Just another myth that the silly base has bought into.

  7. CB says:

    the problem that i see with this specific conservative take on the upcoming election is that you have to buy into the notion that obama is a fool, an bumbling incompetent who cant debate without telepromters, and who has done nothing but throw hyper liberal partisan bombs. its the myth they have spun for four years now, and its becoming a self evident truth among a certain influential sliver of the right. but it is nonsense. obama is alot of things, but an idiot and a fool he is not. as zigler seems to note, i would be wary of such grand expectations.

  8. Hey Norm says:

    @ B. Wolf…
    I think Romney doesn’t do any better…but for different reasons.
    Romney has a temper…when he gets called on his pathological lying he’s gonna lose it. And he makes a $10,000 bet type gaffe…Obama makes him eat it on the spot.

  9. Woody says:

    This is another example of the dangers the GOP has found as a result of developing a completely sympathetic media track. Every single day, Fox denigrates Barack Obama in some way on every program. It might be the teleprompter schtick, the birther nonsense, Alinsky! and so forth. It is now repeated, unnoticed, routine, a rote of dogma – like a mumbled Republican’s Creed.

    Those of us who are not congregants of the Church of Fox – that is, not required to believe in what the GOP wishes for us to believe as a statement of faith – are aware that Barack Obama, was given nothing – and he has earned his position (whether or not one feels he has done his job well is another matter). Clinton had plenty of support across the Village and the media (even within the Murdoch orbit), and Obama won the nomination.

  10. David M says:

    The GOP primary voters now believe their own myths. All the nonsense that’s been thrown at Obama these last 4 years, Gingrich is willing to continue repeating it and the base eats it up. Unfortunately, they are the base and appealing to them alone won’t win the election. After this, I’m less convinced that the Democrats should close their primaries, as it would help avoid situations like this.

  11. Kylopod says:

    This is one of the reasons nominating Gingrich would be so juicy for us partisan Democrats to watch. It would be a rude awakening to that slice of Americans hard-broiled by Fox propaganda. Most of those people would probably conclude that Gingrich had “won” whatever debate they watch with the president, no matter what the consensus is among the rest of the populace, but they’d be in for a surprise on Election Day.

  12. Woody says:

    Anecdote (Not Data):

    I took a fiver off a friend who had converted completely into the Church of Fox on the 2008 election. He was absolutely convinced the election would go to McCain after a close race – because that is what his priests had sermonized for weeks. He was completely gobsmacked when the race was called the moment polls closed in California (Brit never looked more Humen when announcing Obama’s victory).

    He is, of course, still abjectly faithful, and believes Obama to be the most liberal president in history.

  13. Kylopod says:

    @Woody: I saw an example of that in a series of posts by a writer, Steven M. Warshawsky, for the ironically named right-wing website American Thinker. Here is a rundown of his predictions in 2008 (the articles are still available, if you want to Google them):

    Aug. 11: “As I wrote last December, ‘[t]he pundits can talk until they are blue in the face about Obama’s charisma and eloquence and cross-racial appeal. The fact of the matter is that Obama has no chance of being elected president in 2008.’ I am more convinced of this conclusion than ever.”

    Oct. 9: “I have received numerous emails from Republicans and Democrats alike, asking whether I still think Obama will lose the election. Yes, I do. But what about the polls, they ask? The polls show that Obama is winning. No, they don’t, as I will explain.”

    Oct. 25: “In a few more weeks, the political environment in this country is likely to become a heckuva lot nastier. For there are real signs pointing to a McCain victory this year, whether or not the mainstream media wants to acknowledge them.”

    After the election: “I cannot understand how a man like Obama became president. It contradicts everything I know, or thought I knew, about American history, culture, and politics.” (He still did not change his tune about what a terrible, radical president Obama would be.)

  14. Just nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    And where in the constituency of the right is Newt going to find people who are even capable of sitting through a string of Lincoln-Douglass style debates? Or even one?

  15. michael reynolds says:

    Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Gingrich are well-known to voters.

    Mr. Gingrich has a 60% negative rating. He has that rating because he’s a grating, obnoxious, repulsive man. He’s not going to stop being grating, obnoxious and repulsive.

    The GOP is terrified of Gingrich. Democrats are giddy. Do the math.

  16. Kylopod says:

    @Just nutha ig’rant cracker: Since the actual Lincoln-Douglas debates were about three hours long each, I doubt more than 1% of today’s Americans would have the patience to sit through one of them, regardless of political orientation. Of course, Newt is not going to be participating in three-hour debates. After all, the “Lincoln-Douglas” debates he held with Cain and Huntsman weren’t three hours long. That simply is not what he means when he calls these affairs “Lincoln-Douglas” debates. He doesn’t really mean anything at all other than his delusional belief that sticking that label on these debates somehow lends them gravitas.

  17. Ben Wolf says:

    @Hey Norm: You’re right about Romney: he becomes flustered and upset when challenged, which is why Newt continues to make him look like an ass in the debates. Obama doesn’t lose his cool though, which largely nullifies Gingrich’s push-their-buttons style of brawling. It would be interesting to see if Newt has any other weapons in his quiver when he realizes the President is immune to his rhetorical jabs.

  18. Hey Norm says:

    Evidently the Mittster has taken the gloves off and called Newt bad names today. The circular firing squad begins. Obama is probably laughing his ass off.

  19. Hey Norm says:

    Tomorrows debate should be a blast to watch.

  20. Jib says:

    Dont forget how badly Newt looked in the early debates this year. He keep trying to get the Righteous Anger going but he never pulled it off and ended up looking like a angry child.

    With Romney, Obama will go on offense but with Newt he will counter punch. Let Newt bombast away, look for the mistake, pounce on it and then let Newt lose it and sink his own debate. People like Newt can never admit they are wrong and if you catch them on something small and make them look foolish, even in a small way, it infuriates them.

  21. michael reynolds says:

    New polls show Newt either even or ahead in Florida.

    The GOP has tied the noose and thrown the rope over the beam. They’ve brought the chair over. Now they’re sobbing and drinking Jack, trying to get the nerve up to do it.

    Newt! Newt!

    Do it! Do it!

  22. Kylopod says:

    @michael reynolds: I think we should start a “Democrats for Newt” campaign. We’ll even give him money (if we have any)!

  23. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    <@Kylopod: Well, there’s that problem, too.

  24. Fiona says:

    Should Newt get the nomination, I’ll be waiting for the moment in the debate where Obama gets under his skin and Newt puffs up and calls him “boy” or something equivalent. Newt is so convinced of his intellectual superiority to Obama, so over-confident in his debating abilities (which seem to consist mostly of puffing himself up into a ball of self-righteous indignation whenever he gets asked a question he doesn’t like or throwing verbal barbs at his opponents) that he’ll be an easy mark for the cooler, more rational and intelligent Obama.

    Bring it on!

  25. MBunge says:

    If Europe goes south and takes the U.S. economy with it, anyone who has a pulse and doesn’t drool on themselves will beat Obama in November. Newt, Mitt, Paul, Santorum, anyone.


  26. Kylopod says:

    @MBunge: The thing is, if there’s any candidate who just might “drool on themselves,” it’s Newt.

  27. Scott O. says:

    @MBunge: So you’re hoping for an economic disaster?

  28. MBunge says:

    @Scott O.: “So you’re hoping for an economic disaster?”

    Why would you think that? I just think it’s important to remember that if the economy improves, there’s probably no Republican who can beat Obama and if it goes in the tank, any GOP candidate will likely defeat him.


  29. RalfW says:

    @Woody: Indeed, if one sees Mr. Obama in settings other than those orchestrated by Fox, the President comes across more often than not as competent, smart, and occasionally (as in the Al Green moment last week), as likeable.

    None of that can ever be acknowledged on Fox or by Limbaugh, etc. They’ve set up a fake Obama that seems easy to topple. And it gets repeated so often that it’s become the received wisdom on the right that Obama is weak, dangerous and strange.

    And that is a risky place to be, when mainstream perceptions are quite different. It’s worth noting that Fox draws an average 1.8 million daily viewers. Sure Limbaugh has bigger reach, and the combination of conservative radio, internet and TV has a reach, it’s a very closed loop and getting more and more out of touch with, well, everyone else.

  30. RalfW says:

    @MBunge: Which is why a scenario of Euro-crash + Newt should give serious pause to anyone – Republican, Democrat, Independent – outside the 27% GOP base.

    Newt’s temper, ego, dickishness and huge sprays of bombast would spell an ugly, ugly time for America – right, left and center – and would be a fascinating/horrifying thing to see in the international arena.

    He may have been good (in a short-term way) for creative destruction at the level of Speaker, where there were at least caps on his reach. But his brand of ego-driven desire to remake, heck not just America but the world, would be a bad, bad thing.

  31. Brummagem Joe says:

    The provenance of the myth amongst the Republican base that Newt could steamroller Obama in debate is the fact they are continually told by their news sources that Obama can’t function without a teleprompter. It’s self evident nonsense but that’s more of a comment on the Republican base than Obama. In fact he’s very obviously massively articulate, polished, dignified, and likeable. His personal likeability (whatever has happened to his approvals which have been nowhere near as dire as claimed) has remained in the sixties. The format of presidential debates is such that the contrasts physical and intellectual between Obama and Gingrich are going to be highlighted (Sydney Poitier versus Rod Steiger). Give me a break. Which do think most voters are going to find more appealing.

  32. Steve Verdon says:

    @michael reynolds:

    lol…watching the Republicans right now is hilarious. Really, just stop guys, let this year go.

  33. anjin-san says:

    The format of presidential debates is such that the contrasts physical and intellectual

    The contrast between the urbane and elegant President and Gingrich, who projects like a cross between the Pillsbury Dough Boy and the Marquis de Sade, would be very stark indeed.

  34. Scott O. says:

    @Scott O.: Sorry, I misunderstood you.

  35. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @anjin-san: Heh heh…

  36. grumpy realist says:

    @Kylopod: This is why I think any self-proclaimed pundit should be evaluated on his predictions once in a while, with all future publications containing a mandatory accuracy rating.

  37. Kylopod says:

    @grumpy realist: After the prediction in the subtitle of Shelby Steele’s 2007 book A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win failed to come to fruition, I’m sure he was quick to get his next book published so that every time he wrote a column it wouldn’t end saying “Shelby Steele, the author of A Bound Man….”