24 January 2012
The secret of Gingrich's success?
Like Tinker Bell or a professional wrestler, Newt Gingrich is energized by applause. In the Peter Pan play, the friendly fairy's life depends on the audience clapping their hands. In the squared circle, your husky hero can power out of a submission hold and become a house afire if the marks clap and chant loud enough. So it was for Gingrich in South Carolina, as we can infer from the candidate's protest against the decision before the latest debate to discourage applause. The moderating networks routinely do this because more ovations mean less sound bites. A snarky Republican might suspect that the request for silence is made more sternly now because the "lamestream media" mavens don't want candidates like Gingrich to egg audiences on against the media, as he did last week when challenged about his ex-wife's accusation that the former Speaker had wanted an "open marriage." Gingrich and his supporters now seem to see that as his Reaganesque "I paid for this microphone" moment, an inspiring refusal of deference to newsmongers. Gingrich himself goes so far as to threaten to withdraw from future debates if moderators won't let people applaud. That's like taking yourself as a hostage. Gingrich is understood to have won the last two South Carolina debates, so a rational person would wonder why he'd sacrifice his forensic advantage for any reason. There are two likely reasons. First, Gingrich scores some easy populist points by rising to the defense of an audience's free-speech rights. Second, he actually seems to believe that he won the debates and the primary because people applauded him. He may actually think that he feeds on mass enthusiasm -- and he may be right. There's a word for that type of politician: demagogue.