Remember when Newt won?

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What to Watch For: Uncensored Conservatism

Sam Tanenhaus, the author of “The Death of Conservatism” and “Whittaker Chambers,” is working on a biography of William F. Buckley Jr. He was editor of the New York Times Book Review from 2004 to 2013.
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The Fox News debate Thursday night in Cleveland, billed as the first of at least nine Republican presidential debates, is only the latest stop on barnstorming tours that many of the candidates have been on since the beginning of the year. They have had ample time to hone their acts and sharpen their words, often before live audiences.

Whatever drama happens will likely come in small corners of the spectacle, in departures from the script, in sudden improvisations or quick thrusts, in revelations of personality or temperament.

This is especially true in intraparty face-offs. As in any family spat, the contenders have often tangled before and are unafraid of crossing invisible lines of courtesy and deference. And because they are playing to the primary voting-election base, not swing voters, candidates may score best when they draw on the deep well of feeling that animates conservative ideology and feeling today.

A textbook case of a candidate’s making such an appeal came in the 2012 Republican debates in a January matchup just before the South Carolina primary.

CNN’s John King began the questioning by asking Newt Gingrich, who had been climbing in the polls, to comment on something his former wife had said. A skilled and intuitive debater, Gingrich seized the opening:

I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that. Every person in here knows personal pain. Every person in here has had someone close to them go through painful things. To take an ex-wife and make it two days before the primary a significant question for a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.

It was an electrifying moment. Gingrich had tapped into the conviction, shared by Republican politicians and party activists, that a biased mainstream media holds conservatives to a different standard. King, in this interpretation, wasn’t innocently asking a question of Gingrich but seeking to discredit him. All else that evening was afterthought. Gingrich, who was as improbable a Republican nominee as Donald Trump is today, coasted to a victory in the primary and briefly seemed poised to overtake Mitt Romney as the front-runner.

While Gingrich’s outburst helped him in a Republican “family” forum, it could have worked against him in a general-election debate or against a Democrat, since its underlying message was that conservatives considered themselves an outnumbered and besieged minority, at odds not only with the mainstream media, perhaps, but also with mainstream culture.

This was something one of the most accomplished debaters, Ronald Reagan, understood. He was often praised for his dry one-liners. But making too much of them can also obscure the skill he exhibited in more substantive exchanges, as in the general-election presidential debate in 1984. Everyone heard Reagan's deft defusing of questions about his age (he was 73), when he said, of his Democratic opponent Walter Mondale, “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.”

But a more important exchange came later when the candidates eloquently disagreed on what was then called “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants. Mondale opposed a new bill granting citizenship to those immigrants because it required employers to do background checks on workers, stigmatizing “people who are Hispanic, people who have different languages or speak with an accent.” “We've never had citizenship tests in our country before,” he said, “and I don't think we should have a citizenship card today.”

Reagan’s position was equally sympathetic, but raised different concerns. “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here even though sometime back they may have entered illegally,” he said.

As for the burdens of a proposed new law, he said: 

There is another employer that we shouldn't be so concerned about, and these are employers down through the years who have encouraged the illegal entry into this country because they then hire these individuals and hire them at starvation wages and with none of the benefits that we think are normal and natural for workers in our country.

In 1986, Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act legalizing almost 3 million immigrants, most of them from Mexico -- contributing to the influx that has prompted much harsher language today from Trump and other Republicans.

To some extent, debates reveal the ambiguity and instability of language. In 1984, “amnesty” seemed a humane word. Today “amnesty” is an epithet that implies a history of wrongdoing.

Even those candidates sympathetic to immigration like Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio are almost certain to avoid using the word, while anti-immigrant candidates may well use it freely as they stake out less forgiving positions.

This skirmishing, if it happens, probably won’t do much damage. Candidates who have come this far have learned when to stay on message. The question is when and where the openings might come for one candidate or another to seize the moment as Newt Gingrich did.

It will involve some risk, but may be worth it, given how closely bunched in the polls several now are. Each of the 10 people on stage knows he has the power to create an instance of true, and possibly effective, political theater.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Sam Tanenhaus at tanenhaus.lit@gmail.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net