And it would also provide Barack Obama with an opportunity to advocate the progressive principles that inspired him to run for the office in the first place. When Gingrich calls for setting up a private retirement system to compete with Social Security, the President could explain why the current system is equitable as well as cheaper and more reliable. When Newt proposes that boards of citizens vote on whether undocumented immigrants in their localities should stay or be deported, Obama can respond with tales of the vigilante groups that terrorized German immigrants in World War I and Japanese-Americans in World War II. When Gingrich argues for a flat tax, the president would defend the egalitarian logic that underlies the progressive income tax. And if Newt really wants kids to spend time mopping the floors and cleaning the toilets of their schools, the president can remind him why child labor laws got passed in the first place.
In other words, we would have a fair chance of having a true contest of ideas and ideals between two smart men. Newt would force Obama to talk about his principles and not just his programs—or rather how the latter flows from the former. The debates would sharpen the terms of political discourse in a healthy rather than demagogic fashion: Standing just feet away from the president, Newt would probably refrain from ranting about the Democrat’s “secular socialist agenda,” and Obama would not be able to get away with empty talk about “winning the future.”
And the contest would be good for liberalism because Obama would win—unless he gets ensnared in a major scandal or the economy lurches back into deep recession. Gingrich may be basking in the admiration of conservative activists, but, to a broader audience, he still comes off as an arrogant pedant unable to convince those who are not already on his side. On the biggest stage of his life, Newt would almost surely give in to what Matt Bai called his “unhealthy, irrational need to hurl himself higher onto the slopes of history” in The New York Times. Preeners don’t get elected president.