The Gingrich-Huntsman Debate: A New Way to Bash Mitt Romney

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MANCHESTER, NH - DECEMBER 12: Republican Presidential Candidates Newt Gingrich (R) and Jon Huntsman shake hands foloowing a Lincoln-Douglas style debate at Saint Anselm College on December 12, 2011 in Manchester, New Hampshire. The debate will primarily delve into national security and foreign policy.  (Photo by Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images)
Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh/2011 Getty Images

If you happened to devote 90 minutes to the Lincoln-Douglas-style debate between Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman that took place yesterday at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire — and you are in tenuous possession of even modest mental faculties — you will almost certainly have had one or more of the following four reactions: (a) Hey, this isn't a debate, it's a two-man panel discussion; (b) Hey, this isn't a debate, it's a two-man circle jerk; (c) Hey, this isn't a debate, it's a two-man exercise in well-intentioned high-mindedness; or (d) Hey, this isn't a debate, it's a profoundly cynical two-man political maneuver masquerading as an exercise in well-intentioned high-mindedness.

For those keeping score at home, (a), (b), and (d) are all correct — (a) and (b) quite obviously, but (d) somewhat less so, which is why decoding (d) will be the objective of this brief column. (As for (c), if you actually thought that, I have an ounce of oregano and lawn trimmings I'd like to tell you is Sour Diesel and sell you for $500 an ounce.)

First, a brief recap for anyone who didn't watch the Gingrich-Huntsman hoedown. Both men wore gray suits, white shirts, and red ties. Both heaped praise on each other: Gingrich hailing Huntsman's knowledge of China, Huntsman calling Gingrich "a great historian." Both held forth at enormous length about various issues of great importance in foreign policy, on which their areas of agreement were vast and their areas of disagreement — on Afghanistan, for instance, where Huntsman favors a more-rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops than the Obama administration is pursuing, and Gingrich, well, does not — minimal.

All of which made for a debate that even the participants more or less admitted was boring enough to induce narcolepsy in a chronic insomniac. ("I can see my daughter nodding off over there," Huntsman cracked; "In her defense, she was nodding off while I was speaking," Gingrich allowed.) Making the same point with a dose of historical resonance, Politico's soon-to-be-departing-that-brutish-sweatshop-for-a-cushy-new-gig-at-Buzzfeed — about which, congratulations, dude! — Ben Smith tweeted, "Problem is that Lincoln and Douglas disagreed on the great issue of the day. Here ... just talkin."

Some observers felt that all this "just talkin'" was more than a waste of time. "The Gingrich-Huntsman debate had potential," wrote Molly Ball wistfully over at The Atlantic, chastising the latter in particular for missing the "opportunity afforded by sharing the stage with a front-runner."

But the truth is that Huntsman missed no such thing. For him, sharing the stage with Gingrich was sufficient; it allowed him to bask in the Newtian media glow and flash his brand as the field's (abysmally low-polling) grown-up. Huntsman, please recall, is not running against Gingrich, the current tea party/ultracon favorite. He is running against Mitt Romney, whom Huntsman hopes will come reeling out of Iowa having been drubbed there badly enough that he'll then also fail to win New Hampshire, thus allowing Huntsman (goes his campaign's theory) to emerge, by a miracle, as the Establishment's new alternative to Newt. The last thing Huntsman wanted to do today, then, was  to take Gingrich down a peg. What he wants instead is to boost him (and hence sink Romney) now in hopes of having a chance to challenge him later.

As for Gingrich, his ulterior motives in the debate were equally devious. On the one hand, having ostentatiously positioned himself over the weekend as the man who will run a "relentlessly positive" campaign — a claim undercut somewhat by his DNC-style attack on Romney's record at Bain Capital — he wanted to present the image of himself discoursing amiably with Huntsman, and also to slather some of the two-time ambassador's gravitas-flavored foreign-policy juice all over his well-fed self. On the other (more important) hand, Gingrich has every interest in bolstering Huntsman's prospects in New Hampshire, for every vote that the former Utah governor obtains in the Granite State will come out of Romney's hide, not his own.

So there you have it: a Lincoln-Douglas-style debate that was less about Lincoln or Douglas, not to mention Gingrich or Huntsman, than it was about Mitt Romney. To be sure, the real story was all subterranean, but it was there all the same — and even came to the surface at the end, courtesy of the moderator, Pat Griffin. Referring to Gingrich's expressed desire, if he is the nominee, to hold seven Lincoln-Douglas-style debates with the president, Griffin quipped, "I'll bet you $10,000 he doesn't show up."

When even debate moderators are mocking you at an event where you're not present, there's no escaping the fate you're now suffering:

Call it AntiMittmentum.