The Huntsman-Gingrich Debate That Wasn't

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The so-called "Lincoln-Douglas debate" between the GOP candidates at the top and bottom of the polls turned out to be an unenlightening lovefest

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Republican front-runner Newt Gingrich took a break from the campaign trail Monday to give a wide-ranging foreign-policy lecture at a New Hampshire university, where he was joined on the panel by a former ambassador to China, one Jon Huntsman.

That's what Monday afternoon's supposed "Lincoln-Douglas debate" between Gingrich and Huntsman really felt like. The two flattered each other, recited a number of views that they mostly agreed upon, and filled the balance of the time with uncontroversial blather about the importance of foreign policy, the glories of the present event and, of course, the greatness of America.

"This is what we should have a lot more of. This is substantive," Gingrich said of the forum as it was winding down. "We're a country in enormous trouble. ... We're not going to solve things with, you know, what's your solution on Libya in 30 seconds. This is not a Hollywood game, this is not a reality show. This is reality."

Gingrich famously detests the televised debates that have done so much to propel him to his current place atop the GOP dogpile, deriding them as shallow sound-bite competitions. (Although, as Huntsman slyly noted after Gingrich's statement above, the former House speaker is one of just two candidates who've agreed to attend a debate hosted by reality-show host Donald Trump.)

But there's a reason you can't just let politicians natter on about the rightness of their positions for as long as they like: because that's exactly what they'll do.

The Gingrich-Huntsman debate had potential. Huntsman could have seized the opportunity afforded by sharing the stage with a front-runner by mixing things up a little. He wouldn't have had to transgress the civility of the forum by getting personal; he could have brought up views of Gingrich's he disagrees with and explicitly made arguments against them.

But he didn't. That has to be counted as a missed opportunity for Huntsman, who should have been on his home turf talking about foreign policy.

If you are just now tuning in to the primary race -- which, in fairness, would be a sane and rational thing to do -- here are some things you would have learned from the forum:

* Huntsman believes it's time to bring the troops home from Afghanistan. Also, he has met Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

* Gingrich believes the current administration's foreign policy is dangerously unfocused -- "We don't have a theory today of what it is we're doing. We're randomly using our forces" -- and as a result, we are "weaker" as a nation than we were 10 years ago.

* Huntsman thinks warmer U.S. relations with India might improve our relationship with Pakistan.

* Both think we must help overthrow the current Iranian regime, which must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons.

* Huntsman doesn't believe we should have intervened in Libya.

* Neither knows what is going to happen in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Huntsman: "You can't force history -- the speaker knows that as a great historian."

* Gingrich disapproves of the way the Obama administration handled onetime ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt: "Obama dumped him in a very unceremonious way," he said, an action that made other U.S. allies question whether they could trust us.

* Huntsman believes the generation of leaders about to take power in China is "a hubristic, nationalistic generation" that lacks a sense of history, but nonetheless thinks their ascent to power will create opportunities for improved dialogue.

* Both candidates would look to trim defense spending. Both believe in a comeback for American manufacturing.

None of this was much of a revelation, but it sounded serious because it took an hour and a half to get through. At the end, the moderator -- who mostly didn't even ask questions, just threw out topics for the candidates to freestyle on -- noted approvingly that they'd only managed to hit half of the topics on his list, so extensive was the discussion. 

"I can see my daughter nodding off over there," Huntsman noted at one point. Gingrich generously offered: "In her defense, she was nodding off while I was speaking."

It is true that Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas participated in a series of very long single-subject debates. (It's also true that Lincoln, as Gingrich never bothers to point out, lost that election.) But they disagreed, passionately, about the central topic, slavery. The Gingrich-Huntsman debate, like the Gingrich-Cain debate before it, failed to highlight any of the differences between the two. Forget the 19th Century version -- the high-school Lincoln-Douglas debate format is more enlightening than this was.

Image credit: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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