The Gingrich–Huntsman debate illustrated, sadly, what GOP voters are looking for in a presidential candidate.
- By Michael A. CohenMichael A. Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation.
Once upon a time, there were two Republican presidential candidates. One was the former governor of a conservative state and ambassador to a growing world power. He was smart, disciplined, well-versed in the ways of the world and the complexity of international affairs. The other was a former speaker of the House; a bombastic, ethically challenged, former historian enamored with big ideas for "radical transformation" but little sense of how to accomplish such grandiose goals.
I am speaking of course of Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich — the latter the GOP frontrunner, the former an also-ran in the race for the Republican nomination. But on Monday afternoon, the two men sat down for a debate on U.S. foreign policy and international relations at New Hampshire’s St. Anselm College. It was a fascinating glimpse into the nature of the GOP nomination process to date; and the extent to which Republican voters are clearly valuing style over substance in choosing their standard bearer to take on Barack Obama.
Yesterday’s debate was billed as a Lincoln-Douglas style discussion, but it had one big difference from those mythical debates of more than a century ago — back then, the candidates occasionally disagreed on issues like slavery and states’ rights. Over a 90-minute discussion, two men who have huge differences in how they view the world somehow could not identify a single area of disagreement. Even in the media sessions afterward, when Huntsman was asked if he didn’t share some of Gingrich’s most outlandish statements about bombing Iran, for example, he refused to answer. Still, there were obvious differences between the two candidates.
Huntsman, to date, has been banking in large measure on his experience as an ambassador to China and his sober and adult approach to policy matters both domestic and international. He’s the safe pick; the clean-cut boyfriend you can feel comfortable bringing home to your parents. That serious figure was on display Monday afternoon.
At every turn, Huntsman spoke of the need for a foreign policy that is focused on American’s global economic strategy. Like a personal trainer trying to whip America into shape so it can more effectively deal with the global challenges of tomorrow, "strengthen the core" was his mantra for the day.
He had a well-thought out five-point plan for Afghanistan: 1) pull the troops out, 2) switch the mission there to counterterrorism, 3) train the Afghan National Army, 4) maintain a Special Forces capability, and 5) re-jigger the relationship with Pakistan to reflect its fundamentally transactional relationship. On China, he delved into the specifics of domestic social development, the emerging views of what he-called the fifth generation of Chinese to come of age since the Communist revolution. He even broke out some Mandarin Chinese to remind the audience of his foreign language fluency. He told the audience "we’re the best short-term tactical thinkers" but that "China has the best set of long-term strategic thinkers."
It was sort of eerily reminiscent of how people used to talk about Japan 20 years ago, but that’s a quibble for another day. While at times delving into more direct security issues like Iran (he called it the "transcendent issue of this decade" or terrorism (which he said isn’t going away any time soon) he never strayed far from his laser-like focus on the economic message, that he clearly hopes will resonate with New Hampshire voters.
At times it felt like Huntsman was leading a graduate seminar on U.S. foreign policy rather than running for president. And yet, that’s been his shtick for months now — and not surprisingly he still remains mired in the single digits of GOP polling. For all his acumen on foreign affairs, there is lack of passion to his performance that is striking. He just doesn’t have the charm or even the basic appeal of a presidential candidate, particularly at a time when the GOP appears to be looking for someone a bit more viscerally grabbing. Quite simply, he is selling a product that doesn’t appear to interest Republican primary voters.
Then there is Newt Gingrich; the bad boy to Huntsman’s upright and dependable boyfriend. While others may couch their words in diplomatic language or achievable policy specifics, Newt doesn’t waste his time with such niceties. For example, the United States can’t stop an Iranian nuke … rather it has to "move to regime change." One can’t let Iran get a bomb because a movement that "recruits its own children to learn how to be suicide bombers" wouldn’t think twice about using a nuclear bomb. There’s no "effective deterrent" to that, claimed Newt (we’ll ignore for a moment that Newt is conflating the actions of Iran proxy Hamas with the strategic calculus of the Iranian government).
But what really defines Newt is his ability to up-sell issues. For Gingrich, every single government institution, from the State Department to the intel community to the Defense Department’s procurement capabilities to NASA’s bureaucracy is in need of radical transformation. It’s not enough to come up with a new energy policy; America must wean itself off all foreign oil. Manufacturing capabilities must be completely rebuilt; a national debate and comprehensive strategy on dealing with radical Islam is required. Everything for Gingrich is bigger and fundamentally transformational.
In Newt Gingrich’s world, there are no simple, tactical solutions for anything — and everything that the United States is doing now is wrong or misguided. In speaking about U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, Newt described it on Monday as a "willful denial of reality on a scale that is breathtaking." His solution largely consisted of platitudes with none of the programmatic solutions offered by Huntsman. In a question on dealing with the national debt, Newt advanced a plan to save $500 billion a year — by modernizing government — and then said that number was perhaps a bit too low.
There is no nuance with Newt; no half-measures or mere modifications to what is currently being done. Everything must change. And every story is told with a leading anecdote offered in breathless tone that suggests only a fool would fail to grasp the historic nature of Newt’s arguments. After a while, listening to Gingrich feels like a bit like listening to a couple of undergraduates in a dorm room talking about how to fix the world while passing around a joint.
But when it comes to how Gingrich might actually achieve these goals — how he might radically overhaul the bureaucracy or get Congress to go along — he had little so say (and wasn’t asked by the moderator or Huntsman). One can reasonably argue whether Newt is a smart guy or a brilliant politician, but when it comes to offering realistic solutions to difficult national challenges he’s notably deficient.
But then again, this is a bit of what GOP voters appear to be looking for this election cycle. If they wanted the safe, solid pick that everyone will like Huntsman would have greater appeal, but if Newt’s recent performance in public opinion polls is any indication, Republicans voters this year clearly prefer to drive their parents crazy.