Public Comment

Echo Chamber Narrative

By Thomas Lord
Friday January 06, 2012 - 01:17:00 PM

Your recent editorial advocates electioneering transparency and the promising sounding California DISCLOSE Act -- worthy causes and thanks for shining a spotlight on them.

I have my doubts, though, when you invoke the popular narrative that it was Super PAC negative advertising that brought down Newt Gingrich in Iowa. To be sure, that is Gingrich's claim. Certainly, the national news pundits have accepted that narrative and repeat it as gospel truth. I don't buy it, though, and I'm not sure why anyone would.

Negative ads appeared around the time that Gingrich began falling in the polls. That's about all we really know. The question of correlation vs. causation hangs unanswered.

If big money didn't hurt Gingrich in Iowa, what might have? 

Perhaps a simpler explanation for Gingrich's fall is that he ran a lazy campaign, relying more on TV exposure than on driving a borrowed truck around Iowa meeting people. On TV, the only audience feedback Gingrich receives is from the imagined audience in his head. Playing to that audience, in the weeks leading up to the caucus, Gingrich turned up the volume on his wordy, condescending Smartest-Guy-In-The-Room act. In so doing, he trashed his own brand. 

Gingrich's prior rise in the polls coincided with his challenging Obama (and just about anyone else) to "anytime, anywhere, Lincoln-Douglas style debates". He peppered his speeches with smart-sounding references to the Newt-brand history of the republic. For a brief couple of weeks, his campaign was driven by his threat to out-argue and out-knowledge anyone and everyone, especially the well spoken incumbent. 

For those who suspected that Obama got elected on the basis of pretty words covering bad ideas, the notion of an equally well or better spoken conservative candidate had some appeal. 

Yet as the caucus drew nearer, Gingrich put his argumentation on full, fool display. He spoke about repealing child labor laws while managing to insult poor people everywhere. He criticized the courts, this time promising to start a full blown constitutional crisis by having judges arrested and hauled before congress. To display his foreign policy prowess and love of Israel he referred to "an invented Palestinian people" who apparently other Arabs should take in to spare us all a lot of fuss. 

At the heart of all of those gaffs are popular conservative sentiments: less employment regulation, cultural endorsement of hard work, demand for a conservative-leaning judiciary, and strong support for Israel. Its hard to imagine how he could touch on those topics and get in trouble yet get in trouble he did. 

It was the way he said things. Each time he tried to say something shocking ("repeal child labor laws") he said it so poorly that later he was seen "clarifying" his position. He was constantly getting tripped up on his own words and his own inflated sense of genius, and then getting called out on it. Instead of more Gingrich, we got a lot of Newt explaining what Newt really meant when Newt last went off. 

The "great debator," thus -- without even a real audience or debate partner -- lost the debate before it even happened. Nobody seeing those clips on the nightly news or the net could seriously believe any more that this supposed scholar could out talk the incumbent. 

Meanwhile, while Gingrich fought the ghosts in his head under the studio lights, his real Iowa competition - Rick Santorum - tried something radical in Iowa. He canvassed the state. He met people. He spoke in small forums earnestly and interactively. Santorum went into Iowa as a weak speaker who usually does quite poorly on television. He worked Iowa the old fashioned way. From underneath his nervous patter and sweater vest emerged a serious and engaged candidate willing to articulate his views with relatively little bluff, bluster, or bull. 

Campaign transparency is an important issue. I'm all for it. Still, let's not assume that big money trumps all else in electioneering. Gingrich may find it convenient to blame his loss on anything but himself but we don't have to join him in that. He defeated himself the old fashioned way, fair and square.