(Yes, this is an admission that I watched far too much C-Span this weekend.)
Believe it or not, policy wonks who watched the Herman Cain – Newt Gingrich “debate” last night were treated to a substantive discussion of actual issues. The fact that the event – which featured the two candidates talking policy in a free-flowing and barely-moderated format – was so unique is a sad commentary on our nominating process.*
Cain and Gingrich were a contrast in styles. Both were strong. Cain was effective with his blunt charm. (I don’t remember ever seeing a candidate defer to his opponent to get the more in-depth answer.) Gingrich provided analysis, historical context, and some innovative ideas with his answers.
It’s pretty clear that Gingrich had the better of this debate. He had better command of both the issues and the facts, offered plenty of corroborative studies and resources, and managed to make all of it accessible to the average voter…
Mostly, I think the voters won this debate. We finally had 90 minutes of substantive discussion of the real issues in entitlement reform, offered in positive terms from two of the men who want to lead this country. With media “moderators” out of the way, we put aside slogans and soundbites and the sniping that broadcast outlets love to provoke to write stories on the fluff rather than the issues.
This could set a standard for debates in the future, but only if Republican voters demand to see the other candidates in similar forum models.
The higher-profile event was the Iowa Republican Party’s Reagan Dinner on Friday. Newt’s speech captured the audience. He began by complimenting his rivals, each for their different strengths. Then he launched into his “campaign plan” for the general election. In a post titled “Newt’s Night,” Katrina Trinko of NRO describes the scene:
He went on to detail what he would do as the GOP nominee, including challenging President Obama to seven Lincoln-Douglas style debates with no moderators. Gingrich made one concession: Obama could use a teleprompter if he wanted.
“If the president does not agree,” Gingrich said in reference to the debates, “I will announce that from that day forward for the rest of the campaign, the White House will be my scheduler” and he would follow Obama wherever he goes, just as Lincoln had followed Douglas for a time. That drew a partial standing ovation from the crowd – a rare show of enthusiasm from a low-energy crowd.
Gingrich gave another stemwinder in Iowa on Friday and continues to move up in the polls because he’s talking about conservative ideas. Not unlike Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) after his campaign meltdown, Gngrich has picked himself up and decided just to talk to the voters.
Taking a strong intellectual defense of conservatism directly to the voters is a strategy that seems to be working.
* (Frankly, though, voters can’t really complain too much. Compared to the past few cycles, I’ll take this year’s packed debate schedule. Anyone who decries that there are “too many debates” should stop to think of the alternative: “gotchas,” 30-second ads, and canned sound-bites.)