What Gingrich is good at, and why he is doing well

Paul K. writes:

Dealing with the liberal debate moderators is an area where Newt Gingrich excels and I think it accounts for his rise in the polls. When asked a question, he challenges its underlying assumptions. [LA replies: By the way, that’s what I liked about Alan Keyes in the 2000 GOP race. It’s a very rare quality, tragically.]

This is what law professor Ann Althouse wrote recently (she also linked to the video):

Most of the candidates will listen to a question and then answer some question they wish they’d been asked. This is a standard approach to answering questions on television. It’s a way to avoid letting the questioner control you, and you create an opportunity to say what you want to say.

That’s not what Newt does. He listens to the precise question asked and examines it, then works out, before our eyes, what is wrong with that question and what the real issue is. He has a depth of understanding and flexibility of mind that allows him to do that, he cares about doing that accurately and well, and he has the style to want to perform reasoning for us. I like that. I try to do that all the time in class, and I know how hard it is, what presence of mind and grasp of the material it takes.

For example, in that little clip, the moderator Scott Pelley asks:

As president of the United States, would you sign that death warrant for an American citizen overseas who you believe is a terrorist suspect?

Pelley has framed a yes-or-know question, and instead of saying “yes” (or “absolutely” as Mitt Romney just did), Newt says:

Well, he’s not a terrorist suspect. He’s a person who was found guilty under review of actively seeking the death of Americans.

Newt says that in a puzzled and slightly peeved way that creates drama about whether he might be confused or combative. It puts us on edge. And Pelley is now required to speak again. Newt didn’t launch into a lecture. He even ceded some time to Pelley, who says:

Not found guilty by a court, sir.

Gingrich doles out a dollop of information:

He was found guilty by a panel that looked at it and reported to the president.

Pelley is now put in the role of the student in a dialogue:

Well, that’s extrajudicial. (CROSSTALK) It’s not the rule of law. (APPLAUSE)

Look at Pelley at this point—0:32—he’s smiling and glowing, thinking (perhaps) that he’s doing well in class, and the audience applauds for him. Gingrich swoops in:

It is the rule of law. That is explicitly false. It is the rule of law. If you engage in war against the United States, you are an enemy combatant. You have none of the civil liberties of the United States. You cannot go to court.

Now, the applause is for Newt. The dramatic moment has happened, and now the professor makes it all very clear with an instant, crisp mini-lecture on the dimensions of the rule of law:

No, let me be—let me be very clear about this on two levels. There is a huge gap here that, frankly, far too many people get confused over. Civil defense, criminal defense is a function of being within the American law. Waging war on the United States is outside criminal law. It is an act of war and should be dealt with as an act of war, and the correct thing in an act of war is to kill people who are trying to kill you.

Like you, I am not a Gingrich fan, but I am a great fan of the way he responds to these questions. Perhaps the other candidates could learn something.

LA replies:

Certainly Romney walked into it when he said that he “absolutely” would sign a death warrant for someone who was only a “terror suspect.”

James R. writes:

Here’s wishing everyone would answer these questions by challenging the assumptions and premises they are based on. This is also the quality that makes Gov. Christie so attractive in spite of his other deficiencies.

There ought to be some sort of school or summer seminar “boot camp” that all would-be conservative candidates attend that would teach this. Perhaps Newt Gingrich can be the Dean or schoolmaster of such a institute.

If I remember correctly, he did do something along these lines for a time, but it taught mainly talking points, not how to make the sort of challenge he himself is so skilled at, and is his main admirable quality (I wish he was better in other respects, so he could be supported, but he is too much of an intellectually undisciplined gadfly, among other deficiencies).

Since there is no such academy, every conservative or traditionalist should mentally intone one mnemonic: “I reject your premises, and substitute my own.” They should memorize this one thing till it becomes a state of mind, internal to their character, and use it every time they are confronted by a liberal. [LA replies: A conservative can only outwardly reject liberal premises if he inwardly rejects them; but most conservatives do not inwardly reject liberal premises but swim like fish in the ocean of liberal premises; which of course is the whole problem.]

Liberals are not used to having their assumptions questioned, they are used to having them reaffirmed, “opposed” only as an apologetic qualifier.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at November 17, 2011 08:35 AM | Send

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