Newt Gingrich generally got good reviews for his debate performance last night. It may revive one of the things we heard about a lot during the Newt surge of December: that Republicans liked the idea of nominating him because they thought he'd destroy Barack Obama in the fall debates. Now, the idea that presidential (general) elections hinge on debates is a fantasy anyway (one that Ross Douthat was good on back when Newt was on top partially because of belief in just fantasies). But would Newt actually be good at the fall debates?
No, he probably wouldn't be. Newt's strong suit last night was an extended debate with Juan Williams, in which the former Speaker cleverly enlisted the audience on his side. Which reminded me: virtually every one of Newt's great debate moments all year have been exactly like that. Usually at the expense of a moderator, Newt fires off a one-liner that is perfectly in tune with GOP live debate audiences...you know, the audiences that have jeered the Golden Rule and cheered executions.
You know which debates were tough for Newt? As it happened, there were a string of debates in December, just around the time that he was leading in the polls, that did not feature heavily miked partisan audiences. And Newt didn't do well without them. Nor did he handle attacks all that well. Meanwhile, when he was running a hard negative campaign against Mitt Romney outside the debate hall, he went all Pawlenty on the big stage, especially in a New Hampshire debate earlier this month when he was just rolling out his attacks. Indeed, one of Newt's tricks in early debates that played quite well with the GOP electorate was praising each of his rivals on stage and urging everyone to play nice and concentrate on the big goal of taking down Obama. That's a smart debate trick for an also-ran in a big primary field, but it isn't what Republicans want in a general election debate. For that matter, in the two one-on-one debates Newt arranged (with Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman) he basically praised or ignored his on-stage opponent.
Again, this is mostly theater review rather than political analysis, given that Newt isn't going to be the nominee and that debates don't make much of a difference anyway. But it's always fun to make the point whenever it comes up: he's a pretty good snake oil salesman, but otherwise the guy is a total fraud.