David Frum

01.26.12

Newt's Very Bad Night

That was not the debate I expected at all.

I expected a debate that featured a war between Gingrich's intellect and his instincts. Gingrich would try to act the front-runner, to play it cool, to refrain from outbursts.

But (I again expected) he would fail. The barrage of attacks from former allies today—and maybe even more, the needling from the Romney campaign suggesting that Gingrich was erratic and unreliable—would (I expected) goad Gingrich irresistibly.

I was completely wrong.

Gingrich arrived with no plan at all except to repeat his now-famliiar stunt of denouncing the question. This time, though, the stunt failed. Wolf Blitzer asked Gingrich to justify the accusations he'd flung about Romney's finances. Gingrich tried to treat the question as an impertinence. Blitzer pointed out he was only repeating Gingrich's own words. That opened the way for Romney's shiv: wouldn't it be nice if people couldn't make accusations somewhere else if they weren't able to defend it?

That encounter broke Gingrich's nerve and his performance sagged through the evening. He got drawn into an unproductive exchange on space exploration: a dog biscuit at which he should not have snapped, a vivid demonstration of his lack of self-discipline. The evening culminated in a series of brutal Mitt-slaps: one when Romney pointed out that Gingrich had invested in the same Fannie and Freddie securities that Gingrich had attacked Romney for investing in— and without the excuse of having his affairs in a blind trust; the second when Romney powerfully accused Gingrich of offering every state in which he campaigned a major federal giveaway: a new powerline for New Hampshire, a new port for South Carolina, and finally and most fantastically a new moon project for Florida's Space Coast.

Even the one encounter where Gingrich had the chance to have the best of it— when Blitzer refused to accept Romney's claim "I haven't seen that ad"—ended in bad news for Gingrich when Romney entrapped Gingrich into repeating his claim that yes languages other than English were the language of the ghetto.

Gingrich seemed to just stop fighting, beaten not only on points, but psychically.

What happens now? Does Gingrich wake up tomorrow morning in a rage, then give the order to unleash a new barrage of negative Super PAC ads? Or does he stumble onward, hoping for a miracle on Tuesday—to worry later about what to do if the needed miracle fails to materialize?