In two days Jon Huntsman will debate Newt Gingrich in a “Lincoln-Douglas” format in Manchester, New Hampshire. This debate could be a major turning point in the GOP nomination process as Governor Huntsman will have an opportunity to expand on his ideas in a way that is not possible in a 90-second-response debate format. For those of us who have seen Jon in person in one of his many Town Hall forums this is a tantalizing prospect, as we know he fully understands the philosophy behind, and inner workings of his policies (as opposed to well rehearsed sound bytes offered by other candidates). Add to that the opportunity to square off with many are calling the current front-runner and you have a recipe for a major turning point in Governor Huntsman’s campaign.
But as we watch events unfold on Monday night, let us think for a moment about how the GOP got to this point. Newt Gingrich, a man reviled by conservatives as recently as a few months ago is leading in many state primary polls. A man who drew the ire of fiscal conservatives in May by dismissing Paul Ryan’s budget plan as “right-wing social engineering” is being supported by the self-proclaimed fiscally conservative Tea Party. A man who promised social security reform to help elect the 104th Congress, only to immediately punt the problem down the road, saying, “I think Social Security is off the table for the foreseeable future. We have so many other, more pressing and more immediate problems, and we ought to focus on the ones that are are immediate, not the ones that are 20 years out” is being considered to lead at a time in which entitlement reform (which he helped to perpetuate by his inaction) is critical to our nation’s financial survival. How did this happen?
It happened because of a difference in styles. But it won’t last. Newt Gingrich is currently playing to a crowd that has felt politically marginalized since Barack Obama took office, handing Democrats control of both houses of Congress as well as the presidency. People for whom revenge against the president and the media that they feel put him there is more important than actual workable solutions that will repair this country. Ross Douthat explains this phenomenon in today’s New York Times.
It’s easy to see why this kind of myth-making would infuriate Obama’s opponents. And so ever since the 2008 election, the right has embraced a sweeping counternarrative, in which the president’s eloquence is a myth and his brilliance a pure invention. Take away his campaign razzle-dazzle and his media cheering section, this argument goes, and what remains is a droning pedant, out of his depth and tongue-tied without a teleprompter.
This is where Gingrich comes in. Just as Kerry’s candidacy represented an attempt to effectively out-patriot George W. Bush (“You have a war president? We have a war hero!”), the former speaker has skillfully played to the Republican desire for a candidate who can finally outsmart and out-orate Obama.
His promise to challenge the president to a series of Lincoln-Douglas debates, in particular, has been deliberately framed as a kind of professor versus professor showdown, in which the president’s weaknesses will finally be exposed.
That sums it up rather nicely. Does it matter that Newt Gingrich has no executive experience (something that conservatives say was one of the red flags which should have discouraged voters from electing Obama in 2008)? Does it matter that Newt has been consistently un-conservative since just after the 1994 elections? Does it matter that he has ethics violations, affairs, divorces, the 1995 government shutdown and a whole host of other negatives that will be supremely easy targets for the president and the media to exploit in a head to head contest? Does it matter that Newt’s plethora of ‘ideas’ are either unworkable or unpopular and that he has a very low success rate in actually implementing any of them?
Not now it doesn’t. But it will.
Newt Gingrich’s claim to the majority of GOP support in this race, as compared to the others before him, seems to be the least stable and the least committed. True, it is happening late in the race and runs the risk of turning into a “well now we’re stuck with him” scenario. But it won’t get that far. It won’t get that far because, as Douthat explains, people want reassurance.
Newt Gingrich might debate circles around Obama. He might implode spectacularly, making a hot mess of himself while the president keeps his famous cool. But either way, setting up a grand rhetorical showdown seems unlikely to supply a disillusioned country with what it’s looking for from Republicans in 2012.
Conservatives may want catharsis, but the rest of the public seems to mainly want reassurance. They already know Barack Obama isn’t the messiah he was once cracked up to be. What they don’t know is whether they can trust anyone else to do better.
Beginning Monday night, people will see that through Jon Huntsman, the reassurance that voters seek will come in the form of workable plans that are endorsed by conservative minds. They will see that there is only one candidate that is running a campaign that is defining itself on trusting our elected leaders again. They will see that Jon Huntsman understand business, international markets and foreign policy, while Newt Gingrich does not. They will see that no amount of hastily conceived ‘ideas’ can replace the very real knowledge and experience that Jon Huntsman possesses. They will see that the old adage “lets throw some ideas at the wall and see what sticks” is better left in the boardroom, not on the campaign trail during the most important election in a generation. The contrast between a real conservative and someone who only acts like one to win elections will be stark.
While Newt Gingrich’s rise has certainly been useful inasmuch as it has demonstrated that the public is looking for someone, anyone other than Mitt Romney, it has shown that they just haven’t looked in the right place yet. But beginning Monday night, things will change. The two ‘ideas men’ in the race will be on the same stage. But only one of them will be able to demonstrate a history of implementing his. And a large portion of America will have their first, front and center, prime-time look at Jon Huntsman -not at the end of the stage; not divided by eight. It is shaping up to be a real turning point in Jon Huntsman’s campaign.