13 December 2011

One-on-One Gingrich-Huntsman Debate Is A Love-In

L. Moderator C. Gov. Jon Huntsman (R-UT) R. Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA 6th)

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA 6th) held a one on one debate with his opponent former Governor Jon Huntsman (R-UT) at Saint Anselm College in  New Hampshire. This was the second so called “Lincoln-Douglas” styled long form debate of the season, the first of which was between Gingrich and then candidate Herman Cain.

Gingrich’s strategy has been using debates to springboard into contention for the Republican Presidential nomination.  This modus operandi was a necessity considering the near complete collapse of the Gingrich campaign in the spring, after his staff abandoned him when Gingrich took a two week Greek cruise after throwing his hat in the rink.  But by featuring Newt’s prowess at debating, it highlights him as an intellectual while scoring inexpensive earned media.

The one on one debate with Huntsman was an interesting choice.  Outside of New Hampshire, Huntsman has been barely above the margin of error in the polls, but the former Obama Administration Ambassador to China has thrown all of his effort into the Granite State’s first in the nation primary. By debating Huntsman, Gingrich looks magnanimous as a front-runner by  engaging his opponent without risk.  Moreover, Gingrich is concentrating on Iowa and not competing strongly in New Hampshire.  By bolstering Huntsman’s position, Gingrich seeks to decrease New Hampshire front-runner Gov. Mitt Romney’s (R-MA) expected margin of victory without helping an opponent with strength outside of New Hampshire.

The Lincoln Douglas style of debate is wonderful for policy wonks.  Instead of a gaggle of eight candidates making minute and a half answers supplemented with gimmicks like answering “This or That”, each debater had five minutes a piece to expound upon each topic. While the 90 minute debate only covered five general subjects, patient listeners could learn a lot.  However, Huntsman ended one of his responses by sardonically chiming “I see my daughter nodding off so let’s move on”.  This was particularly ironic since Huntsman’s scion is a policy advisor.

The Gingrich-Huntsman debate did not have an acrimonious tone.  In fact, the Twitterverse watching it live considered it a love in.  Most of the questions were within Huntsman’s wheel-house of foreign policy.  Huntsman was impressive in speaking extensively about international affairs. The former Ambassador Huntsman showed a strong grasp of geopolitics, particularly in Asian affairs. The obligatory allusion of Huntsman speaking Mandarin was superfluous and seemed as hoary as Senator John Kerry’s (D-MA) mantra of “I served in Viet-Nam” during the 2004 election cycle.

Although Gingrich was outmatched by Huntsman on the foreign policy details, Newt did well to incorporate his spin on how to augment America’s position in the world.  Gingrich answered questions about dealing with Iran by offering a dialectic as to whether or not a nuclear Islamic Republic of Iran is acceptable.  Gingrich was adept at incorporating the news of the day by citing news regarding the Straits of Hormuz.  Newt worked in his schtick about being a “cheap hawk” to bolster notions about reforming the Defense Department’s budget.  Gingrich also tied in his impressive knowledge base to showing reform by questioning why the Army’s African Command was still based in Stuttgard, Germany.

One of the major complaints of the major debates between candidates is that there is little policy and more personality.  During this long form debate, the idiosyncracies of candidates were not prominent but still present.  For instance, Gingrich’s presentation about taking an activist role against Iranian nuclear pursuits included cutting off refining of petroleum, which Iran mostly needs to import.  A historian like Gingrich ought to remember that cutting off fuel supplies was the reason that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1941.   And while Gingrich smartly cited the Straits of Hormuz, a more crisp, adversarial debate might have explored the geopolitical costs of blocking the Straits of Hormuz, like $300 a barrel oil.  Gingrich’s glib policy pronouncements without considering the consequences is what Romney had called rhetorical bombthrowing during the last debate.

Gingrich was quite cordial towards Huntsman, as he had been to Cain during his one-on-one with Newt.  But Gingrich’s snippiness did appear at the end when the moderator jokingly said that he’d bet $10,000 that Obama would not take it and the speaker said off mike that also Romney would not show.   This follows what Gingrich had sniped against Romney earlier in the day:

I would just say that if Gov. Romney would like to give back all the money he’s earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain that I would be glad to then listen to him. I’ll bet you $10, not $10,000”.

Newt soared during prior debate performances by bolstering his Republican opponents and targeting his fire against the Lamestream Media and the ultimate opponent President Barack Obama.  Sustained attacks by this  feisty Newt battling his GOP brethren might not go over well with primary voters.

Unlike in the bigger debates, Huntsman did not have to whine about getting enough time.  As the debaters were seated, viewers could not admire Huntsman’s sartorial stylings.  But Huntsman’s quirky sense of humor crept into the debate with the quip about his daughter nodding off.  That might have worked in an informal campaign rally, but in an elevated public policy debate it seemed strange and undercut his policy pronouncements.

This so called Lincoln-Douglas debate was shown on the internet with a limited audience of policy wonks and masochists.  It was later shown on CSPAN.  The truly ambitious can even read the transcript.

Gingrich hopes to gin up a series of these one on one long form debates with Obama during the general election.  While it was pretty enlightening, it is dubious if it would attract more of an audience than the OWN channel.  Besides, why would Obama agree to these as he has a penchant to use a teleprompter, a billion dollars in the war chest and a disposition to use negative campaigning to ensure his re-election?

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