The Republican presidential field met again last night on the campus of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa for a debate hosted by ABC News. Everyone was looking forward to the first debate with Newt Gingrich being the nominal front-runner, and the relatively quick consensus (at least on my Twitter feed) seemed to be that he walked away unscathed and a stronger candidate.
The other quick consensus is that Mitt Romney lost, and perhaps lost in a way that has the Republican establishment reaching for their antacids with the Iowa caucuses fast approaching. For a bare-bones analytic perspective of the politics, I go to The Fix:
* Newt Gingrich: The former House Speaker seems to be adjusting nicely to his newfound frontrunner status. While he’s long been one of the best natural debaters in the field, Gingrich seemed to be genuinely working to avoid coming off as a smarter-than-thou intellectual. He had his moments — League of Nations! — but overall the image he gave off was of a more approachable, kinder Newt. (The lone obvious exception was when he sought to push back on an attack from Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann; Gingrich walked right up to the line of being condescending and insulting on that one but didn’t cross it.) The best example? His well rehearsed but nonetheless very well delivered response on whether his three marriages raised questions about his character. Gingrich was remorseful without being maudlin — striking just the right tone on a very tough question for him.
Compared to Mitt Romney’s performance:
This is the first time in the 2012 debates that the former Massachusetts governor has wound up in the loser’s circle. While he wasn’t bad, he also wasn’t nearly as good — in terms of thinking on his feet and message discipline — as he has been in the past. He also made a rare but likely costly unforced error when he asked Perry to wager $10,000 about who was more right about his position on the individual mandate. Some people may roll their eyes and insist that a line like that doesn’t matter but in times of considerable economic anxiety it will be used to make Romney look out of touch. (Remember George H.W. Bush not knowing how much a loaf of bread cost?) Romney also seemed divided on how hard to go after Gingrich. He did so when moderator George Stephanapoulos prompted him but seemed slightly hesitant to do it. Add it all up and you have Romney’s worst debate performance so far this year.
But given that there are probably a bajillion blog posts about last night’s debate, I’d like to focus on one specific perspective that peaks my interest: How tempting is the desire to see Gingrich go up against Obama? Dave Weigel thinks it’s very tempting (my emphasis in bold):
Tonight’s debate in Iowa was the first since Republicans agreed that Gingrich was their presidential front-runner. They’ve started to imagine him facing off against Barack Obama, the president they consider a pure media creation who can’t put two words together unless they’re in blue type on a screen in front of him. They’ve chased fantasies before, like when they heard about a governor from Texas who was going to be their dream candidate, and it turned out that he had trouble with that pesky varmint called “English.”
Which reminds me of this line from an excellent piece from David Frum in the New York Magazine:
Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action phony doomed to inevitable defeat.
I’m particularly curious about this as a potential phenomenon in the Republican primary. In the above article Frum describes conservatism as undergoing a change in the last two decades from one of philosophy to market segment. One of the consequences, he attests:
But the thought leaders on talk radio and Fox do more than shape opinion. Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics.
I suppose my question is thus (and this really is more of a Sunday causal-thought exercise): Assuming a world in which Frum’s diagnosis is correct, is Newt Gingrich the ideal candidate to carry the ideological charge against a perceived feckless President Barack Obama?