Gingrich Lesson in Debate Technique: “Repeat Changers”


With so much talk about how great a debater New Gingrich is, why not watch to learn a little about rhetoric and style from the gentleman from Georgia?

Today’s lesson comes from a recent Republican presidential debate in which Rick Santorum accused Newt Gingrich of being a little grandiose at times. The key word here is “grandiose,” and it was meant to sting.

A skilled debater listens carefully for an opportunity to use a rhetorical device that Jay Heinrichs calls the “repeat changer.” Sometimes that opportunity looks and sounds more like a grave misfortune—worthy of a grunt at best, and a look of terror at worst. The repeat changer repeats the key word or phrase that was used to demean and changes its sense to reflect favorably on the original target.

When Rick Santorum described Newt as someone who can be a bit grandiose at times, he meant that Newt often exaggerates to an absurd extent and often thinks of himself in exaggerated terms. He thus sought to tap into public consciousness, shaped to a degree by recent media focus on . . . . well, Newt’s occasional grandiosity.

How did Newt respond? He did the best thing anyone can do under the circumstance: he repeated the accusation, then switched its sense, suggesting that someone may be considered grandiose because he has grand ideas, and lots of them, for improving things for the American people.

Now this may sound like equivocation. To be sure, the repeat changer does often trade on ambiguity. When it does, it is less effective. But if the shift in sense is mild—as opposed to sharp—there is no harm and no foul. In other words, no fallacy has been committed.

This can be illustrated on one interpretation of Newt Gingrich’s clever rejoinder to Rick Santorum. The basic sense of Santorum’s jibe is preserved, but Newt suggests that Santorum only thinks that Newt is grandiose because Rick is uncomfortable with the grandeur of Newt’s ideas. “Grandiosity” and “grandeur” do differ. But “grandeur” may be mistaken for “grandiosity” by someone who can’t tell the difference. If this is what Newt was getting at, his move was not merely clever, it was ingenious. He might be asking voters, in effect, “Do you want a president who has grand ideas that some confuse with grandiosity, or do you want a president who can’t tell the difference between grand and grandiose?”

In my book, rhetoric has its proper place, especially in public discourse. But it must always be tempered by virtue. So I commend the “repeat changer” when it can be managed without violating the moral and intellectual virtues.

Here’s a poll for you to register your opinion:

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Why Newt Gingrich Probably Still Is the Candidate with the Most to Offer Conservatives


Conservatives at this hour need to be asking themselves two questions:

  1. Why has Mitt Romney been stuck with Republican support in the low 20 percent range for, like, forever?
  2. Why has every candidate who has threatened Mitt Romney lost traction within a few weeks of gaining momentum?

Finding the right answer to these inter-linked questions is like shooting fish in a barrel. It has two parts, one for each question:

First, the “Republican establishment inside the Beltway” wants Romney. Second, true conservatives—those of us planted firmly at the grassroots of the recent Great American Conservative Movement—do not want Romney. What puts officious conservatives at odds with real conservatives in this equation is something that both know: Mitt Romney is not a conservative. The strongest evidence that Romney is not a true conservative, and is therefore a poor choice for ousting Obama, is that he is stuck with low numbers in polls among registered Republicans.

But here’s the secret that “establishment Republicans” and all the liberals themselves do not want conservatives to sort out before it’s too late: Mitt Romney can win the nomination with puny poll numbers as long as conservative support continues to be spread out over several conservative candidates. Add up the collective support for conservative candidates and Romney’s numbers don’t mean zilch.

So conservatives need to wise up, and they need to get with it soon. In Iowa, this means the next few days—five days, if you want to be exact.

Here’s what needs to happen:

One of the conservative Republican candidates needs to be swarmed with support by the conservative base. This candidate needs to have the full complement of tools to take the fight to Obama and the liberal left. The candidate has to be perceived as a serious threat to the establishment. The candidate must be able to tip the scales decisively as a bold, articulate, well-informed, and scrappy individual whose own policies are as far apart from Obama’s as you can imagine.

Who disagrees? That’s what I thought.

Next question: Who might that be?

This isn’t rocket science.

We can dispense with Ron Paul immediately. A vote for Ron Paul is a vote for Obama. Period. I wouldn’t be surprised if the alleged Ron Paul supporters would vote for Obama in the general election if Ron Paul himself won the Republican nomination!

Who’s next? Consider Rick Perry. He’s trying to come from so far behind, and for good reason, that he should give it up and go home now.

That other guy, the former governor from Utah—you know, what’s-his-name. He hasn’t experienced the slingshot effect at all throughout this process, and he isn’t going to, either. So count him out. And I mean, count him out by not voting for him in your caucus or your primary. (This is offered in the spirit of a helpful suggestion.)

We come, then, to two look-alikes (as far as politics are concerned): Michelle Bachman and Rick Santorum. Now these are two candidates who represent a lot for conservatives to like. And until Santorum’s “sort-of surge” in Iowa polls, he and Bachman have run similar numbers in the polls. They both know that they need a strong showing in Iowa. In other words, they have to come out as the big surprise in Iowa so that the rest of the nation will sit up and give them a second look. The trouble for them is, only one of them can do this or the strategy fails . . . decisively. And at this moment in time, a critical moment at that, it looks like it’s Santorum who has the wind at his back. But that’s if we’re comparing him with Bachman.

I like Michelle Bachman. I was impressed with her first appearance in the debates, and I thought she acquitted herself well most of the time. Sure, she’ll stand up to Obama. But it won’t look like much of a threat, I’m afraid. And it’s kind of embarrassing to hear her saying these days that she wants to be “the Iron Lady of the United States,” comparing herself to Margaret Thatcher (who was a great partner with Reagan on the international stage in the 1980s). As determined as she is, Bachman just doesn’t have the gravitas to run the gauntlet and win. (At one time I thought she might make a good vice presidential candidate, but now I’m not so sure.)

I predict that Michelle Bachman will be out of the running soon after Iowa. In light of the urgent need for consolidation behind a conservative candidate, opposite Romney, it would make sense for her to step out gracefully now. She doesn’t really show any inclination to do that, so it will be up to Iowans, even those who like her, to help her make this vital decision.

At this point, this would probably consolidate votes around Rick Santorum. Rumor has it that some leading evangelicals in Iowa have urged one of the two candidates to step away from the fray. They apparently—and correctly—perceive the threat the two of them pose to a sound defeat of Romney in their state caucus.

Santorum might not benefit as much from a Bachman withdrawal if she declared her support for someone else, like Newt Gingrich, for example. How much this would help Gingrich is hard to say. And whether Bachman could back away from her severe criticism of Gingrich in recent days and throw her support with him is doubtful. Newt will have to fend for himself, I’m afraid.

And so we come to Newt Gingrich. If it comes down to Rick vs. Newt for grassroots conservatives, what happens?

Here’s something to chew on, slowly and methodically: Rick has never garnered high poll numbers at the national level. Notice, his “surge” is limited to Iowa. This is probably because of his single-minded calculation to woo Iowans, in hopes of emerging as the Republican surprise that he needs to be to gain any traction. Newt, on the other hand, recently enjoyed a fantastic surge in national support. This was matched in Iowa.

And it looked very promising for him. But what happened? The Republican establishment rose up in concerted, presumptuous, and mean-spirited opposition, thus revealing their latent affection for Romney.

(Suppose Rick Santorum comes out on top or in a dead heat with Romney in Iowa less than a week from now. Will this be a significant threat to Romney? I don’t think so. Where does Santorum go next? New Hampshire would be the lock for Romney that everyone is already predicting anyway. And what kind of organizatin does Santorum have in the South? An Iowa victory would be small consolation if it doesn’t ignite national support as the new “anti-Romney” candidate. And I don’t see how it would. Santorum is tenacious, a decent debater, and truly conservative. But this doesn’t keep Obama awake at night worrying that he might have to run against Santorum. Santorum lacks that special panache that will be needed to knock Obama out.)

Let’s get back to Gingrich. Fellow conservatives, let us ask, Why have we neglected him at such a time as this?

I truly hope that if Newt does not win united support among conservatives it will be because of their wisdom in such matters. But there is the very real possibility that it will come down to being manipulated by the power-brokers in Washington and on network and cable TV.

There are two obvious reasons for Newt’s recent dip in the polls. First, he has been savaged by pontificating “conservatives” of the Republican establishment (for example, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and, more local to my area in Southern California, Hugh Hewitt). Second, the other conservative candidates, smelling blood and needing desperately to improve their own standing in the polls, have blasted Newt for being less than truly conservative.

Michelle Bachman, especially, has stooped to disappointing depths in this regard. Her grip on the full breadth of conservative policy has always seemed ham-handed, but her recent and opportunistic attacks on Gingrich have made this obvious. She has decried his claims to be a conservative, and rehearsed contrived allegations without reserve or grace. I suspect has she hoped, by this means, to steal for herself support from a weakened Gingrich. And this recent lifting of the veil to show that even she can be less than candid and fair has made me more sure that she should not be given further encouragement in her bid for the presidency. Frankly, I believe she may have spoiled any chances she had even to be invited to be the vice presidential running mate. (I remember being impressed very early on that Newt Gingrich liked and supported Michelle, and wanted to see her do well. I recall thinking that he might even then have been thinking that she could be good running mate material. Not any more, I’d say now. I invite you to go back and review the early debates.)

By now you’ll know that I give Newt Gingrich the best chances of beating Romney for the nomination and for beating Obama in the general election. Of the true conservatives still in the running, he is the only truly Reaganesque one of the bunch. Conservatives need to remember how much they would like to have Reagan back. That’s not possible. He was one of a kind, and what a kind he was! But he imprinted some few who still carry the DNA. And Newt Gingrich is one of them. Mitt Romney surely is not. And Rick Santorum and Michalle Bachman, for all of their virtues (and they are considerable), just aren’t the Reagan-types of our era.

We need to face another serious obstacle to shoring up support for the single best conservative candidate to ruin Romney’s nomination prospects. Among grassroots conservatives, evangelicals carry considerable electoral weight. And evangelicals, for perfectly intelligible reasons, have gravitated toward candidates who are more overtly in line with their theological convictions. (Many speculate that this, too, is a reason why Romney has not done well among evangelicals. But I think that reasons for conservative evangelical reluctance about a Romney presidency are more complicated than this.) On this score, Michelle Bachman and Rick Santorum are the more pleasing candidates for some evangelicals. Both are quite public and transparent about their Christian faith, and Bachman identifies very explicitly with evangelicalism. But it has to be said: This is not a sufficient reason to cast a vote for Santorum or Bachman. In fact, this may even be a reason for evangelicals to withhold support.

Let me explain.

Suppose an evangelical wins the presidency. Would that be cause for rejoicing among evangelicals? Not necessarily. For starters, Jimmy Carter bellowed his evangelical pedigree and got himself supported. Consider how that turned out. He is the most disgraced former president alive today. Other reasons are more to the point, however.

First, evangelicals owe their fellow citizens fair consideration in the effort to work together toward the common good as a pluralistic society. Constituency voting is, on a certain level, shameful. Though we owe our Christian forebears a great debt for bequething to us a legacy of democracy and associated values, this did not make us a “Christian nation” in some theocratic sense.

Second, evangelicals, of all people, should be able to distinguish between society’s spiritual and religious problems and society’s political problems. And they should know better than to think that the very real religious and spiritual problems of our society would be healed by concentrating political power in the hands of evangelicals. (I have lived and work among fellow evangelicals my entire life, and I shudder to think what kind of society ours would be if power was to be consolidated in their hands.)

This brings me to a third consideration. If the Christian church seeks to impose its will on the American public by electing political leaders on the grounds that they are the true saints of the world, then the Church will one day (and once again) be embarrassed by the inevitable failures and spotty track records of those presumed saints. Better to elect a good and decent person, with a stout sense of America’s special standing in the world and her Constitutional groundedness, than to insist on someone with more limited political skills whose decency we associate with our own religious convictions.

I have often thought—indeed, I trembled at the thought even during the last election cycle—that an Obama victory based on constituent support might prove an embarrassment to the constituents who supported him, without regard for his political expertise or sensibilities as a human being. I trust that some who voted for Obama for no better reason than this do now regret doing so and will be more circumspect on this next go around.

It’s very possible that we who are evangelicals have been the slowest to wake up to current political realities, and that we stand in the way of a successful campaign against Obama. Let us be rid of any vain hope that a political fix for all of America’s problems depends on electing one like ourselves in every respect possible. That is a foolish ambition. It is one of which we should repent, before God himself.

Let us, instead, use the wisdom we have been given by God—feeble though we are to steward this wisdom faithfully—to cast our political support for the one we truly believe, all things considered, can bring the change many of us believe is desirable and possible.

I suggest that this calculation must take into consideration the need for a broad conservative movement in this country to consolidate around a single worthy candidate, who will no doubt be flawed like the rest of us, and to reawaken to the peculiar privilege it is for serious Christians to live in a democratic Republic.

Evangelical Support for Newt Gingrich/Early December 2011

Suggested Reading:

“Newt Gingrich strong with Iowa evangelicals, Tea Partiers” (December 6, 2011)

Updates:

• Wintery Knight has started an interesting Facebook thread discussing this post. Click here.

The GOP Tea Party Debate


Caricatures: GOP Presidential Debate Participa...

Image by DonkeyHotey via Flickr

The Republican candidates have done two debates this week. Tonight’s debate was the best of three. The questions were focused and the candidates showed vim and vigor. Those lagging behind Romney and Perry in the polls needed to up their game, and two of the candidates did. Michelle Bachman shined and Rick Santorum did pretty well. Bachman is still in the game. Santorum is probably going to continue to lose traction.

Until tonight, I was looking forward to hearing more from John Huntsman. After tonight, I don’t care if we never hear from him again. I don’t see any potential there for this guy to break out. He’s glib, the opposite of self-effacing, and petty.

Ron Paul’s only real potential is as a spoiler. Tonight, as a senior congressman from Texas, he played the spoiler to Rick Perry. Paul’s presence will be a nuisance to Perry as long as Paul stays in the race.

Perry proved vulnerable on several points, including his HPV vaccination plan and his handling of illegal immigrants. Michelle Bachman may have succeeded in raising Perry’s weaknesses on these points to a level of appreciable resonance with his own base. Perry was on the defensive most of the evening. He limped through one defense after another in front of ultra-conservative Republicans, many of whom want to see Perry do well. And he was booed following one of his comments about the immigration issue.

Sometimes Perry looks and sounds like he’s channeling George Bush. He’s not an effective debater. I have real doubts about his ability to survive under close scrutiny in future debates.

Mitt Romney hit harder than he has in the past, but with the aplomb we’ve come to expect from him. I believe his problem is that he is uninspiring. He also comes across like a real establishment-type politician. But he’s in this race for the long haul and is the candidate to beat if Perry peters out. Romney projects stability. But he looks like the rich guy he is and hasn’t been comfortable reaching out to Tea Party Republicans who will, for better or worse, make a difference in the Republican nomination process.

Herbert Cain is a refreshing presence at these debates, and he’s doing a number of things well. Can he go the distance? It will be interesting to see. It’s nearly certain that he won’t get the nomination and I doubt that he would be anybody’s first choice as a vice presidential running mate. He could have a place at the table in the next president’s cabinet, though. He’d make a fine good-will ambassador.

That leaves Newt Gingrich.

At every debate so far, Gingrich has excelled. John King of CNN agrees. Newt Gingerich has had “back-to-back-to-back strong debate performances.” King blames Newt’s low poll numbers on his age. He thinks that voters are looking for the younger candidates to get the job done. I’ve wondered about this. But Newt does look like the adult in the room. This could turn things in his favor. When others are petty, kicking sand in each other’s faces, Newt just keeps taking the battle to Obama. He understands that the coming election will be very much about whether Obama should be re-elected. Newt is singularly capable of challenging Obama head-to-head. I suspect he’s the candidate that Obama fears the most.

So why is New Gingrich lagging in the polls?

1. Gingrich is especially disliked by the liberal media. They almost uniformly acknowledge his political prowess. His debating strengths are readily acknowledged. But he’s dangerous to the liberal cause.

2. The media prefers to cover the sensational. This explains, I think, the favor that Rick Perry enjoyed before even announcing his candidacy. Gingrich’s strengths will not be noticed as long as attention is poured on candidates whose substance remains a mystery.

3. Gingrich is the elder statesman of the group. He’s been around longer than anyone, except Ron Paul. He isn’t such a fresh face and he hasn’t been leading the new Republican charge to change the way business is done in Washington.

4. Gingrich has a couple of personal negatives to overcome. These were bigger news earlier on. If he begins to garnish renewed attention, they may return to haunt him.

These aren’t deal-breakers for Newt. The personal issues may already have been aired as much as they can be, and his interval of invisibility may have been good for him on this score. Ron Paul is polling in double digits, and Gingrich is down around 7%—about even with Bachman. Ron Paul is an anomaly. He won’t last. That should give Gingrich room to move up. And if Perry peters, as I expect (hope?), he can move up dramatically. If Gingrich endures and moves up in the polls, that will be a sensation and the media will have to cover the story. And he isn’t ancient. John McCain was ancient.

Here’s how Gingrich improves his standing, if he can hang in there long enough. The Perry fanfare fizzles as his debate performance deteriorates. This depends on Perry’s own limitations. It’s also reinforced by Bachman’s vigorous and effective attacks, as seen in the Florida debate. Bachman needs to play the spoiler long enough for Perry’s cache to diminish. In due course, Ron Paul, John Huntsman, and Rick Santorum need to drop out of the race. Herbert Cain must follow suit. That would leave Romney (a known quantity, but a force to be reckoned with), Perry (paired down to size), Michelle Bachman (maybe), and Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich’s stature is sure to rise if there’s ever a two-way or three-way debate in which he participates. He can hold the Tea Party folks if their favorite candidates drop out, and he can win with independents who are weary of Obama.

But time will be a factor for Gingrich. He needs to win in the South Carolina primary. Rick Perry has the edge there now. Bachman could do well in SC, but for Perry. If the New Hampshire primary comes early enough, John Huntsman could cut into Mitt Romney’s strength there. This could minimize the effect of New Hampshire on a Gingrich bid.

I have no idea what to expect from Iowa, though it’s expected that Bachman could do well and is out of the game if she doesn’t.

Rick Perry has deeper pockets than Newt Gingrich. But Obama has deeper pockets than everyone. And I view it as cynical to suppose that the one with the most campaign money is the likely winner for that reason alone. (What kind of treasure chest did John McCain have during the last Republican primary?)

All of this may be wishful thinking. I would like to see a contest between Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama. This would be a contest between two radically opposed ideologies on a national stage that is itself deeply divided. Gingrich’s penchant for clarifying ideas might force Obama to be more explicit about his own ideology. The electorate would be faced with starkly contrasting agendas defended by more-or-less articulate spokesmen.

There is one other variable that is important to Newt Gingrich’s chances: Sarah Palin has to remain in the sidelines . . . .

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