When pundits settle on a candidate, they often fall into a trap, articulating arguments on behalf of their favorite or against his or her rivals that cast doubt on their judgment. In his piece on National Review Online endorsing Mitt Romney, Ramesh Ponnuru did not add to the force of his argument (which did have force) when he threw in this:
It’s true that Romney took a sharp right turn when he moved from state to national politics. But it’s also true that in 2008 he was the candidate behind whom Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, among other conservative notables, said that the conservative movement should rally in order to stop John McCain from getting the nomination.
And Kathryn Jean Lopez did not do herself proud when she repeated this meme in a follow-up piece. The fact that the proud father of Romneycare fooled Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin (not to mention the folks at National Review) in 2008 tells us more about them and about their visceral dislike at that time for John McCain than about Romney himself.
Ross Douthat fell into the same trap in his column in The New York Times on Sunday. Here is his premise: “Newt Gingrich’s recent rise in the polls is being sustained, in part, by a right-wing version of exactly the impulse that led Democrats to nominate Kerry: a desperate desire to somehow beat Barack Obama at his own game, and to explode what conservatives consider the great fantasy of the 2008 campaign — the conceit that Obama possessed an unmatched brilliance and an unprecedented eloquence.”
Let’s grant that this claim has some force (because it does have force). And let’s pause to admire the eloquence with which Douthat skewers the erstwhile admirers of The Great Prevaricator:
This fantasy ran wild four years ago. Obama is “probably the smartest guy ever to become president,” the presidential historian Michael Beschloss announced shortly after the November election. The then-candidate’s Philadelphia address on race and Jeremiah Wright was “as great a speech as ever given by a presidential candidate,” a group of progressive luminaries declared in The Nation. Obama’s “Dreams From My Father” is quite possibly “the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician,” Time Magazine’s Joe Klein declared. “He is not the Word made flesh,” Ezra Klein wrote of Obama’s rhetoric in The American Prospect, “but the triumph of word over flesh, over color, over despair.”
It’s easy to see why this kind of myth-making would infuriate Obama’s opponents. And so ever since the 2008 election, the right has embraced a sweeping counternarrative, in which the president’s eloquence is a myth and his brilliance a pure invention. Take away his campaign razzle-dazzle and his media cheering section, this argument goes, and what remains is a droning pedant, out of his depth and tongue-tied without a teleprompter.
It is here, Douthat continues, that Newt Gingrich makes his appearance:
“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.
So far, so good. Gingrich played the political card that Douthat has identified. But, then, the latter goes off the deep end, arguing that debates between candidates do not really matter very much at all, echoing Quin Hillyer of The American Spectator in rejecting what the latter calls “the fallacy of the master debater,” which Douthat defines 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.” And what is the latter’s argument? It is this:
In reality, Kerry outdebated Bush but did not outpoll him, Al Gore won the 2000 debates on points only to lose them on personality, and Abraham Lincoln lost the Illinois Senate race to Stephen Douglas. When a presidential debate does matter to a campaign’s outcome, it’s usually a passing one-liner (Ronald Reagan’s “there you go again” Walter Mondale’s “where’s the beef?”) rather than a Ciceronian performance that makes the difference.
The examples that Douthat lists do not provide a firm foundation for his argument. To begin with, it is not at all clear that Kerry outdebated Bush and that Al Gore won the 2000 debates on points. In any case, oratory is, as Aristotle and Quintillian point out, at least as much about ethos (which Douthat calls “personality”) as it is about logos (or argument).
But what about Abraham Lincoln? He did, indeed, lose the Illinois Senate race. Stephen Douglas won in 1858. But this was due to gerrymandering. In those days, the state legislatures elected the Senators, and in that particular election the Illinois Republicans received more votes statewide than did the Democrats. Moreover, it was Lincoln’s performance in those debates that subsequently won him the Republican Presidential nomination, and his victory in the Presidential race was due to the damage he did Douglas by forcing the latter to articulate a defense of his stance on slavery that, he hoped, would satisfy the people of Illinois – for the position adopted by Douglas outraged Democrats from the deep South, bitterly split the Democratic Party, and opened the way for Lincoln’s victory in 1860.
And Ronald Reagan? He was not a great debater. But, as Douthat’s example demonstrates, he did, in fact, out-debate Walter Mondale in 1984, and that made a considerable difference.
And what about Reagan in 1980? Douthat left that one out, but I remember. On the eve of that election, one could accurately have said what Douthat said about 2012 on Sunday: “Conservatives may want catharsis, but the rest of the public seems to mainly want reassurance.” And Reagan managed to provide both catharsis and reassurance when he asked, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
In any case, if you want evidence that the debates matter, you need only consider the trajectory followed by Rick Perry, not to mention the rise in succession of Michele Bachmann (who shone in the first debate), Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich. There is nothing peculiar about the Republicans in this regard. Americans in general respond positively to candidates who are well-spoken. They find it, in fact, reassuring.
Douthat might have avoided the trap into which he fell had he paused to consider the 1994 Senatorial election in Massachusetts. Early on, Mitt Romney led Ted Kennedy in the polls. The trial of William Kennedy Smith three years before for a rape putatively committed on Holy Saturday in the wake of a Good Friday visit to the bars in Palm Beach, Florida with his Uncle Ted had brought back memories of Chappaquidick. But the old liberal lion won handily in the end. How did he do it? He stomped Romney in the debates.