As usual, nobody on the stage in last night's debate could match Newt Gingrich as an extemporaneous rhetorician. When anyone else was asked a question, he tried to give the appearance of responsiveness by stringing his talking points together seamlessly. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum do this pretty well by now, but if you pay attention you can still spot the seams in their answers where one talking point ends and the next one begins. You hardly have to pay attention to spot them when Rick Perry's talking--you just have to notice the momentary panic in his eyes during the couple of seconds it takes him to figure out which of the four or five things he can remember to say comes closest to being an answer to the question asked.
Newt's playing in a different debating league. He composes cohesive paragraphs on the spot that squarely answer the question he's addressing. Even if, like me, you're not very sympathetic to most of what he has to say, you can't help but appreciate the economy and eloquence with which he often manages to say it. Consider this:
Whatever you think about the content of what Gingrich said, you'd have to be tone-deaf not to hear the music in his words. It's hard to think of any other political figure, including Obama, who thinks on his feet well enough to have pulled something like this off. If a presidential election were a debating contest, Newt would already be trying out desk chairs for the Oval Office.
But what good did his eloquence last night really do him as a presidential candidate? Newt didn't manage in the course of a two-hour debate to lay a glove on Romney, above all, because Newt wasn't willing to call him a predatory capitalist to his face. And did you hear a single word out of Newt's mouth that would tend to show that he, rather than Santorum, ought to be the standard-bearer of Republican conservatives? If anything, Santorum looked better equipped to mix it up with Romney and unite the party's doctrinaire conservatives. Newt did a bang-up job last night of making conservatives feel good about themselves, but he didn't do much to make them think of him as a potential president.
Truth be told, last night's performance confirmed something that we already knew: namely, that Newt has never been able to hold his own in hand-to-hand political combat against a skilled and determined opponent. Although he started from a position of strength, he got taken to the cleaners by Bill Clinton in the 1990s. And he was taken apart by the Romney campaign as soon as he established himself as the Republican front runner last November.
As a politician, Newt has always talked a better game than he played. His way with words is nothing to sneeze at. But Obama wouldn't already be president and Romney wouldn't be closing in on the Republican presidential nomination if they weren't players.