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the national interest

Romney (Wild) and Gingrich (Mild) Swap Roles at Foreign Policy Debate

Newt Gingrich, former U.S. Speaker of the House, speaks during a presidential debate sponsored by Bloomberg via Getty Images and The Washington Post held at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011. The event moderated by U.S. television talk show host Charlie Rose and featuring eight Republican candidates, presents the first debate of the 2012 political season focused solely on the economy. Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images Gingrich debates.

The Republican race now seems to be between Mitt Romney, the consummate establishmentarian, and Newt Gingrich, an hysterical blowhard. But if you watched Tuesday night’s national security debate, you’d never have guessed which was which.

Romney’s overarching national security theme is pure drivel stitched together from the fantasies of right-wing talk radio. In Romney’s world, President Obama jets around the globe apologizing for the United States when he is not expressing outright disdain for it and plotting to enable the rise of foreign countries to supplant American might. He offers no factual basis for any of these utterly counterfactual claims. And it’s the sort of theme that might work for an incumbent president against an untested challenger, but it’s hard to see how you paint a commander-in-chief with a strong record of wiping out terrorists as an America hater.

Gingrich, on the other hand, speaks the establishment language on foreign policy. He frequently laces his answers with relevant detail, and when he has no detail, he bluffs by invoking the need for “strategy” over “tactics.” This is exactly how Washington think-tank blowhards do it, which is no surprise, given his years of think-tankery. On foreign policy, Gingrich is the inside man, Romney the wild demagogue.

The sharpest and strangest contrast lay on immigration, and this poses a true danger to Gingrich. Over the summer, when Rick Perry took the lead in national polls, Romney staked out turf to Perry’s right on immigration, which helped precipitate his collapse. Romney continues to hold that stance. Gingrich persuasively argued that it would be impractical and wrong to uproot immigrants who have laid deep roots in the country. This continues to be an issue where Romney holds a position designed for a primary, and poisonous to the general election. As poor a nominee as Gingrich would be, he is better positioned than Romney to contain the party’s damage among Latinos.

The questioners at the debate featured a rogues' gallery of Bush-era criminals, incompetents, and criminal incompetents, including Paul Wolfowitz, Daniel Pletka, David Addington, and Marc Thiessen. Sadly, the captain of the Hindenberg was dead.

The inclusion of Herman Cain in a foreign policy debate reminded me of a joke I used to make with my wife when she was a third-grade teacher. She would grade book reports, and I would tell her that I should review her students' work as if it were published (i.e., “warmed-over drivel”; “this adds nothing at all to our understanding of George Washington”). Grading Cain’s foreign-policy answers by the standards of an adult who is supposed to understand this as an important part of his job description is likewise ridiculous. The best he could do was to recognize the general theme of the question.

Patriot Act? The terrorists want to kill us all. (Perhaps you thought they would spare Obama.) What if Israel attacks Iran? Cain wants to see the plan. What about aid to Africa? It may be worth continuing, it may not. Herman Cain does not know and does not care.

Romney has begun running ads that show President Obama quoting a John McCain aide during the 2008 campaign, and presenting the quote as Obama’s own belief. His campaign has openly defended the practice, insisting, “he did use those words.” In light of that, it’s worth noting that at one point during the debate, Romney declared, "We want those brains." That’s a line that desperately needs to appear in an attack ad, juxtaposed against images of an army of moaning zombies that Romney may or may not plan to unleash on America if elected.

Related: What You Missed in the Eleventh GOP Debate

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Photo: Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images