The Gingrich-Huntsman Debate: A New Way to Bash Mitt Romney

December 13, 2011

By , The New York Magazine

If you happened to devote 90 minutes to the Lincoln-Douglas-style debate between Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman that took place yesterday at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire — and you are in tenuous possession of even modest mental faculties — you will almost certainly have had one or more of the following four reactions: (a) Hey, this isn’t a debate, it’s a two-man panel discussion; (b) Hey, this isn’t a debate, it’s a two-man circle jerk; (c) Hey, this isn’t a debate, it’s a two-man exercise in well-intentioned high-mindedness; or (d) Hey, this isn’t a debate, it’s a profoundly cynical two-man political maneuver masquerading as an exercise in well-intentioned high-mindedness.

For those keeping score at home, (a), (b), and (d) are all correct — (a) and (b) quite obviously, but (d) somewhat less so, which is why decoding (d) will be the objective of this brief column. (As for (c), if you actually thought that, I have an ounce of oregano and lawn trimmings I’d like to tell you is Sour Diesel and sell you for $500 an ounce.)

First, a brief recap for anyone who didn’t watch the Gingrich-Huntsman hoedown. Both men wore gray suits, white shirts, and red ties. Both heaped praise on each other: Gingrich hailing Huntsman’s knowledge of China, Huntsman calling Gingrich “a great historian.” Both held forth at enormous length about various issues of great importance in foreign policy, on which their areas of agreement were vast and their areas of disagreement — on Afghanistan, for instance, where Huntsman favors a more-rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops than the Obama administration is pursuing, and Gingrich, well, does not — minimal.

All of which made for a debate that even the participants more or less admitted was boring enough to induce narcolepsy in a chronic insomniac. (“I can see my daughter nodding off over there,” Huntsman cracked; “In her defense, she was nodding off while I was speaking,” Gingrich allowed.) Making the same point with a dose of historical resonance, Politico’s soon-to-be-departing-that-brutish-sweatshop-for-a-cushy-new-gig-at-Buzzfeed — about which, congratulations, dude! — Ben Smith tweeted, “Problem is that Lincoln and Douglas disagreed on the great issue of the day. Here … just talkin.”

Some observers felt that all this “just talkin'” was more than a waste of time. “The Gingrich-Huntsman debate had potential,” wrote Molly Ball wistfully over at The Atlantic, chastising the latter in particular for missing the “opportunity afforded by sharing the stage with a front-runner.”

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