I didn’t watch last night’s umpteenth Republican presidential debate. I had a prior commitment with some poker-playing friends, although given the night’s outcome, watching the debate would have been a smarter financial option on my part.
By all accounts, Mitt Romney again took on the role of aggressor against Newt Gingrich, and Gingrich again shrank from the confrontation.
As Politico describes it, Gingrich “simply seemed worn out and off point. Gone was the brawler who could whip up the crowd. And it’s not quite clear where he went… he did not seem to be enjoying the heat of battle as in past debates.”
At one point, Gingrich reportedly tried to rebut a Romney attack by complaining to Mitt that “you’re very quick to draw the widest possible exaggeration,” which is truly priceless considering the source. I’m sorry I missed that moment.
The Washington Post was no more kind in its after-action report, concluding that “Gingrich was just plain off his game … looked less prepared and never really recovered.“
None of that surprises me. A strong showing in this last Florida debate was crucial to Gingrich, whose post-South Carolina momentum has faded in recent days. He needed another strong, aggressive showing and did not produce it, but that is consistent with his history.
At heart, Gingrich is a bully who backs down when confronted. He likes to challenge members of the media in public, safe in the knowledge that their profession does not allow them to return fire. He is well-skilled at creating and then dismantling strawmen. And he is supremely confident when he senses that he has succeeded in intimidating his target.
But when the critical moment comes, he deflates. As speaker, he shrunk from Bill Clinton, to the point that his aides and lieutenants didn’t want to have them in the same room lest a passive Gingrich agree to too much. In these debates, once Romney decided to fight back aggressively, Newt has repeatedly retreated. In the previous debate, he was left speechless and flustered by a pressing Romney, and apparently he still hasn’t recovered his bluster.
When asked last night to discuss his campaign-trail attacks on Romney’s bank accounts in Switzerland and the Caymans, Newt pulled a Pawlenty, explaining that “I’m perfectly happy to say that in an interview on some TV show, but this is a national debate where you have a chance to get the four of us to talk about a whole range of issues.”
To which Romney responded:
“Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make accusations somewhere else that they weren’t willing to defend here?”
If and when the time came, Gingrich would have done the same when pitted against Barack Obama. In baseball, they say that a player is what his numbers say he is.
This is who Gingrich is.
– Jay Bookman