GOFFSTOWN, N.H. - It was billed as a Lincoln-Douglas debate between Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman. It turned out to be a knockoff of the NewsHour, a calm and quiet discussion of foreign policy.
Still, their encounter at St. Anselm College here did send several messages: That both men know quite a lot about foreign affairs; that they could sound far more reasonable than several of their challengers (one thinks of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and former candidate Herman Cain); and that they are happy to join forces against Mitt Romney, even if they never said a word about him during their formal discussion.
At his news conference afterward, however, Huntsman couldn’t resist mentioning the man who wasn’t there. “I’d like to challenge Gov. Romney to a sit down like this,” he said.
It should be said that Newt Gingrich deserves some credit for letting the debate — or whatever it was — go forward. Huntsman, way down in the polls, had everything to gain from the debate. Gingrich, who is now the front-runner in the polls, had at least something to lose.
But Gingrich has been championing Lincoln-Douglas style debates for a long time and has said that if he wins the Republican nomination, he will challenge President Obama to seven of them, at three hours each.
That would be excessive. But since I rarely get to agree with Gingrich, I will take the opportunity to say that he’s right on the idea that direct debates between candidates — meaning debates without journalists as questioners — are a very good idea. I hope at least one of them happens next fall. Candidates often hide behind the journalists. The short time to answer questions privileges glibness and carefully planned sound bites, not deep knowledge. We are electing one of the candidates, after all, not any of the journalists.
Unfortunately, the “debate” this afternoon was not a debate in any sense and thus not a good model for the genre. The two men did leave a rather rich record of statements that will be dissected later: My colleagues at The Fix offered the highlights in their live blog.
Gingrich is likely to be pressed on the implications of his call for “regime change” in Iran. He also offered a foreign policy critique that seemed to encompass the presidencies of both Barack Obama and George W. Bush. “We’re not stronger than we were 10 years ago,” he said. He suggested that America’s military commitments had not been thought through — and again, his comments seemed to go beyond the current presidency. “We don’t have a theory today of what it is we’re doing,” he said. “We’re randomly using our forces.”
Huntsman reiterated his view that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq should be wound down, but he also declared that “Iran is the transcendent issue of this decade in terms of foreign policy.” He later made clear that he was talking about challenges in the Middle East, since he has been insistent that economics should be the United States’s driving foreign policy concern and that, as he put it today, the relationship between the United States and China would be the relationship of the 21st Century. He placed a heavy emphasis on the “the.”
The former Ambassador to China played well-informed pundit on the future of Chinese politics, arguing that the next generation of Chinese leaders who will be taking power are “a hubristic nationalistic generation” who had no experience of earlier decades of political turmoil. “They’ve been terribly informed by 30 years of massive economic growth,” he said.
And here’s a great Huntsman thought for all teachers of AP Comparative Politics courses crafting essay questions. The Chinese, he said, are “the greatest long-term strategic thinkers in the world.” Americans “are the best short-term tactical thinkers in the world.” Discuss.
So what were the underlying politics? Short-term, it might have made sense for Huntsman to take Gingrich on directly. He needs attention to rescue himself from the cellar in the polls.
Yet both he and Gingrich appeared to be playing a longer game. As my colleagues Amy Gardner, Karen Tumulty and Philip Rucker suggest in their Post story, Huntsman and Gingrich have every reason to join forces to push Romney aside. Gingrich needs to beat the candidate who most closely trails him — and Romney is actually still ahead in New Hampshire. Huntsman would love to see Romney knocked out early so he could emerge in later primaries as the man who would save the G.O.P. from a Gingrich nomination.
To pick up on Huntsman’s analysis: Is this great long-term strategic thinking, or brilliant short-term tactical thinking? Maybe it’s neither — wishful thinking, perhaps? But both men seemed quite pleased when their non-Lincoln-Douglas-non-debate was over. And for the wonks of the world, the thing was pretty serious, and without a single gotcha moment.