Professor Fight

Maybe Newt Gingrich is supposed to exist for the Republicans as a sort of anti-Obama, the man who can finally expose the president’s own weaknesses and “beat him at his own game.” So writes Ross Douthat at the New York Times, explaining that many Republicans are hoping that Gingrich can out-professor Professor Obama. As he writes:

Newt Gingrich’s recent rise in the polls is being sustained, in part, by a right-wing version of exactly the impulse that led Democrats to nominate Kerry: a desperate desire to somehow beat Barack Obama at his own game, and to explode what conservatives consider the great fantasy of the 2008 campaign — the conceit that Obama possessed an unmatched brilliance and an unprecedented eloquence.

“How does a Columbia-Harvard graduate, who was the editor of the law review … supposedly the best orator in the Democratic Party,” Gingrich asked recently, “how does he look himself in the mirror and say he’s afraid to debate a West Georgia College professor?” It’s a line that evokes a kind of conservative revenge fantasy, in which the liberal elitists who sneered at George W. Bush’s malapropisms and Sarah Palin’s “you betchas” receive their richly deserved comeuppance at the hands of Newton Gingrich, Ph.D.

The whole premise is a little odd. It’s based on a Hollywood concept of academia with little application in the real world.

Neither of these people are actually professors; they’re both career politicians who have occasionally taught. Neither of them speaks like real professors, who are usually not charismatic or interesting. Gingrich and Obama, however, are politicians who have a reasonably good command of history and ideas. That’s perhaps unusual in public debates, but it’s not unheard of.

This may be part of the reason it’s not going to work. Perhaps this smartie vs. smartie contest would result in the presidency in some Disney movie version of presidential debating, but not here in real America.

Never mind that it’s not really clear Gingrich is a better debater than Obama. The problem, Douthat says, is that even if Gingrich can outsmart the president in a debate that’s, at best, only a satisfying moment up on stage.

It doesn’t make it any easier to capture the presidency. Douthat: “Kerry outdebated Bush but did not outpoll him, Al Gore won the 2000 debates on points only to lose them on personality, and Abraham Lincoln lost the Illinois Senate race to Stephen Douglas.” The debater winner isn’t the real winner.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer