The Gingrich debate delusion

Gingrich says he’ll entice President Obama into seven multi-hour Lincoln-Douglas style exchanges in the fall. This is pure fantasy. Obama will, at most, agree to three 90-minute debates, as he did in 2008. John McCain attempted to pressure his adversary into participating in ten joint town hall meetings (the setting in which the Arizona Senator was most comfortable), to no avail. Leading in the polls, Obama abandoned his own previous bravado that he’d debate McCain, “any time, anywhere,” and there is no reason to believe he’d behave any differently in 2012 — especially as a vulnerable incumbent whose re-election strategy relies on distracting voters from his failed record of governance.

There’s also no guarantee that Obama will even respect recent precedent by acceding to all three head-to-head matches, which are currently slated for October. This president believes himself to be above precedents that may imperil his political goals; his recent, shameless “recess” appointment fiasco is a case in point. Should he choose to demur on one or more debates, Obama’s election team would point to the 1964, 1968, and 1972 general elections, all of which featured zero debates, to try to justify the calculated dodges. The media would make a perfunctory fuss – as they did when Obama broke his public financing pledge in 2008 – but that outrage would subside, inevitably succumbing to Obama Protection Syndrome.

Even if Obama doesn’t duck his eventual GOP opponent, the planned exchanges only amount to 270 minutes of direct debate time out of a months-long campaign. Four-and-a-half hours. That’s it. The outcome of the fall contest will depend far more on ground game, organization, fundraising, focused messaging, and the ability to appeal to independent voters by making Obama the issue. The Gingrich campaign has displayed glaring weaknesses on all of these fronts. Newt has failed to get on the ballot or qualify a full slate of delegates in at least three states so far, and barely made the cut in the critical battleground of Ohio. Even in victory, the Wall Street Journal characterized Gingrich’s South Carolina campaign as “disorganized” and “somewhat chaotic.”