On Saturday night, Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain met in Texas for a special, one-on-one "debate." But anyone who tuned in hoping for fireworks would have been disappointed. It might have been more accurate to call it a joint campaign appearance.
Rather than debate, the two presidential candidates get together in Texas to audition for a hilarious right-wing buddy movie
The debate seemed like an extremely promising idea when it was announced a few weeks ago. Gingrich and Cain are probably the two most entertaining candidates in the current Republican field -- the former speaker with his acerbic wit, the businessman with his thunderous exhortations. Both are running "non-traditional campaigns," which is a euphemism for not running much of a campaign at all. For both men, their blundering into the top ranks of recent polls seems to have spoiled an otherwise pleasant book tour.
How exciting it promised to be, then, to see these two together on stage, without those annoying other candidates interfering in a good show. Without Mitt Romney and Rick Perry's ongoing attempt to achieve mutually assured destruction; without that cranky Rick Santorum guy; without Ron Paul's diatribes and Jon Huntsman's sanctimony, and most definitely without Gary Johnson's dog poop jokes.
The only problem: Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain really like each other. And with friendly moderators -- a local Americans for Prosperity honcho and archconservative Iowa Rep. Steve King -- there was no one asking actual tough questions, pinning the pair down when they wandered off topic or didn't make sense, or seeking to draw out differences between the men in a way that might be helpful to voters trying to choose between the two.
Naturally, this suited Gingrich and Cain just fine.
Gingrich answered the first question, about Rep. Paul Ryan's budget proposal, by conveniently forgetting that he'd once called it "right-wing social engineering." "Paul Ryan came up with some very good ideas," he said, and wound up in a detailed discussion of Medicare fraud.
When it was Cain's turn, he said: "At this particular juncture I'm supposed to get a minute to disagree with something he's said. But I don't."
And so, when Cain finished his answer -- "I like the Ryan plan. I haven't found anything in it yet that I don't disagree with (sic)" -- the moderator announced he was making an "executive decision" to suspend the clock and let the candidates take as long as they liked with each question. With that, the thin pretense of debate was dropped.
Gingrich and Cain are both nominally from Georgia, and they have known each other since the debate over "Hillarycare" nearly two decades ago. In previous debates, their mutual admiration society prompted the creation of this delightful Photoshop imagining them melded into a "Newtman Caingrich."
As the discussion wore on Saturday, one actually could discern the difference, however. It wasn't on policy, where they couldn't find any real disagreement. But the contrast in style was obvious. In the unlikely event either of these men became president, Gingrich would be wonk-in-chief, while Cain would leave the details to others and serve mainly as a cheerleader.
Gingrich, as the forum wore on, began to monopolize the floor time, reliving past glories with explanations of the ideas behind welfare reform and taking credit for balancing the budget in the 1990s. He referenced academic books and think-tank studies, invoked history and delivered tart sound bites like "This president is about as candid and accurate as Bernie Madoff in what he tells the American people." He was obviously having a ball. If you didn't already know this whole thing was Newt's idea, you could have guessed.
Cain largely deferred to Gingrich, perhaps because he didn't seem to grasp all the technical details under discussion -- at one point, when asked whether he thought Medicare should be based on a "defined benefit" or a "premium support" model, he repeated, "Defined...", trailed off, rubbed his chin and concluded, "You go first, Newt." (Gingrich was happy to comply.) He mostly spoke in generalities and made sure to get in a plug for "9-9-9."
"We as a nation are not short on good ideas for how to fix Social Security, how to fix Medicare," Cain said at one point. "What we are short on is the ability to educate people on the solutions." The president, he said, must use "that particular bully pulpit" to be "communicator in chief."
There was no mention of the scandal Cain has been embroiled in for the past week as past accusations of sexual harassment against him have surfaced. But he seemed to allude to it at the end, when Gingrich asked him what had most surprised him about running for president.
"The nitpickiness of the media," he said. "I expected to have to work hard. I expected to have to study hard. But I did not realize the flyspecking nature of the media when you are running for president, especially when you start moving up in the polls."
Then it was Cain's turn to ask Gingrich a question. And Cain showed where his true talents lie: he may not be able to tell you the ins and outs of the Social Security trust fund, but he knows how to bring down the house.
"Mr. Speaker, if you were the vice president of the United States, what would you want the president to assign you to do first?" he said.
Gingrich cracked up, guffawing and wiping his eyes. "Well," he said, "having studied my good friend Dick Cheney, I would not go hunting."
Image credit: Reuters/Donna Carson
Molly Ball is Time magazine’s national political correspondent and a former staff writer at The Atlantic.