Jon Huntsman, Democrats’ favorite Republican, and Newt Gingrich, Republicans’ favorite current Republican, met in a free-wheeling, one-on-one debate at Saint Anselm’s College this afternoon.
Huntsman showed up serious and focused. New Hampshire is the whole ball-game for him, and he is lucky Gingrich agreed to the debate. Gingrich came to the stage rumpled and loose.
In the first few minutes, Huntsman came across as over-eager and political, emphasizing how deep his commitment to New Hampshire runs, saying he is adopting the unique dialect of a native. (Why do candidates think that people in primary states like Iowa and New Hampshire are dumb enough to be wowed by someone who grovels to them by stunts like moving to the state or campaigning nowhere else? They know desperation when they see it.)
As the debate proceeded, Huntsman gave long specific answers to questions about Afghanistan and Iran, often with three points. Gingrich, on the other hand, continued to do what would worry me if I were running his campaign. Gingrich often resembles an academic who knows all options, frames all the questions, has read all the studies, but refuses to commit to a policy. (In fairness, after much to and fro, Gingrich did finally repeat his commitment to regime change in Iran).
The debate suffered from the lack of a strong moderator. On Israel, Gingrich recounted a 1994 meeting with Yitzhak Rabin in which the Israeli leader said he wanted to make a deal with the Palestinians to create the space for dealing with Israel’s real existential threat: Iran. I wondered how Gingrich might square the meaning of that story with his statement last week that Palestinians are “invented.”
On a question about the Arab Spring, Gingrich was particularly glib. He attacked Obama for “dumping” Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, saying the United States could have gotten him to retire gracefully and maintained its status in parts of the Arab world as a reliable ally. Sounds good, but does anyone believe that was an option given what was happening in Cairo or that Mubarak would have ever have left gracefully? Mubarak would have used U.S. pressure as a lever to rally public support and stay in power as long as possible.
Huntsman, as I have observed before, comes across as practical. He repeated his belief that U.S. foreign policy should be re-oriented to our economic interests and our military to combatting terrorism, the latter a shift with profound budget implications.
Bottom-line: Two smart guys, perhaps the only two candidates currently in the Republican primary capable of speaking intelligently and masterfully across a wide range of foreign policy issues.