The Gingrich-Huntsman 'Debate'

By James Fallows

I put "debate" in quotes because this was more like a well-mannered talk show with two guests. Archived video on this site. Here's the significant point:

This was the first GOP debate of the four million we've had so far where the real winner was not Barack Obama. All the preceding debates have highlighted the very elements the Republican party would not like to bring into the general-election campaign: Fractiousness among the candidates; extreme, half-baked ("9-9-9"), or under-informed positions from many of them; sound-bite sloganeering from all of them; and barely any time to make a concerted case against Obama apart from saying that he's awful.

This time there were two informed-sounding adults talking in complete thought-sequences -- even to the point of dullness, which is not bad compared to the preceding craziness. And they offered thoughts that they simply could not have developed, or that would have been batted away with slogans, in the "normal" crowded-house debate with its 30- or 60-second segments. For instance, both of them explained why the defense budget really had to go down. Or the realities of what can be expected with Pakistan and Afghanistan. The ways in which China is both rival and partner, etc. Because they both knew they'd be able to make their points, there wasn't the desperation for air time that had made performers in all the other debates act as if they have to blurt out their attack-lines and applause-points whenever they have a chance.

I didn't agree with a lot of what I heard. Among other things: in this and the previous Republican debate, all the candidates have essentially said they would franchise out decision-making in the Middle East to the government of Israel, in a way that would seem bizarre if we were talking about delegating decisions to the UK or France in Europe, or to Japan or South Korea in East Asia. Still, this was the only debate that was overall a win for the Republicans.

On Newt Gingrich: Stephen Budiansky has a very penetrating assessment of why Gingrich sounds the way he does. To summarize, he talks the way people who know nothing about academics or intellectuals think academics and intellectuals would talk. Or, as Andrew Sullivan put it more bluntly, he sounds like "A Dumb Person's Idea of a Smart Person." When reading that item I couldn't help thinking about the Martin-Aykroyd "Wild and Crazy Guys" routines on SNL, showing what Eastern Europeans of the Communist era thought that hep-cats from the U.S. would sound like.

Congrats to Huntsman, Gingrich, the St. Anselm's organizers, and the Republican party on this event.

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