The preliminary phase of the Republican presidential race—the preprimary game of "Last Not-Mitt Standing"—may well turn on a pair of debates. How GOP voters respond to these fora will say a lot about the party's seriousness and the identity of its nominee.
First there will be a "Lincoln-Douglas" style contest this evening between former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman, the ex-governor of Utah who more recently was Barack Obama's ambassador to China. The face-off elegantly hearkens to the party's early glory days putting it in stark contrast to the other debate in question, a Donald Trump-orchestrated circus at the end of December which perfectly illustrates how much the GOP has become dominated by an entertainment-industrial-complex freak show.
The commonality between the two events is frontrunner du jour Gingrich. The historically erratic politician has suddenly caught the eye of the atypically ticklish Republican electorate. But with a month before the Iowa caucuses, there's plenty of time for one more convulsion of the electorate. Buzz is building that the Gingrich boom may give way to a Huntsman surge.
Right now Gingrich sits at the top of most national polls. Given that, it's hard to understand why Newt, whose self-seriousness can verge on self-parody, has agreed to participate in Trump's December 27 Iowa publicity stunt. (It's worth noting that only Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, last seen losing his 2006 re-election bid by a whopping 17 points, are the only GOPers taking part--Huntsman and the rest deserve credit for refusing to treat Trump as a serious part of the primary process.)
The answer partly relates to the GOP's allowing entertainers like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck to assume leadership roles within the conservative movement. The problem with letting media personalities run your party is that their ultimate interest is building audience, usually with conflict, rather than building coalitions or enacting policies, which requires broad appeals and compromise. Reality star Trump, with his birther bomb throwing, fits in perfectly.
And the answer partly relates to Gingrich himself. There are famously two Newts. Good Newt was the driving intellectual and political force behind the 1994 Republican Revolution. But there's a reason why Gingrich's GOP colleagues forced him from office. "Newt has 10 ideas a day—two of them are good, six are weird, and two very weird," former House GOP colleague Scott Klug of Wisconsin told the Wall Street Journal last week. "The question for Newt is: Is he disciplined enough to make it through a campaign?"
Lack of discipline and preening hubris help explain why Gingrich is willing to participate in the Trump insanity. It's not one of his two good ideas.
And those qualities, along with his checkered post-congressional career, explain why many conservative commentators cringe at the notion of a Gingrich nomination. He "embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive," George Will wrote in the Washington Post last week. "And there is his anti-conservative confidence that he has a comprehensive explanation of, and plan to perfect, everything." Or consider Charles Krauthammer, in the Post earlier this month: "Gingrich's obvious weakness is a history of flip-flops, zigzags and mind changes even more extensive than [former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt] Romney's—on climate change, the health-care mandate, cap-and-trade, Libya, the Ryan Medicare plan, etc."
Even if Gingrich somehow avoids the kind of self-immolation he's indulged in in the past, the right's dalliance with him seems likely to fray in the face of these flip-flops, not to mention Tea Partyers realizing that his Washington outsider rhetoric is disconnected from his Beltway insider career, especially as an influence peddler (see the $1.6 million he earned from Freddie Mac for his services as a "historian"). A month is plenty of time for them to sour on him; the Trump debate could well be his tipping point or even swan song.
Which brings us back to the Lincoln-Douglas debate, a foreign policy focused affair between Gingrich and Huntsman.
There is sound strategic reasoning for front-runner Gingrich to agree to this match with Huntsman, whose campaign has never gained traction. Yes it could elevate the former ambassador, but he has staked everything on New Hampshire, a Romney stronghold. Anything that undercuts Romney, then, helps Gingrich.
Nevertheless, it is an opportunity for Huntsman, if he can capitalize. Whether he can is an open question given his campaign's staggering start and fumbling run which has at times seemed aimed at antagonizing the conservative base. ("To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming," he tweeted in August. "Call me crazy.") But as conservatives run out of time and alternatives first to Romney and now to Gingrich as well, Huntsman is getting a second look.
In the same column in which he torched Gingrich, Will argued that Huntsman's "program is the most conservative." RedState.com's Erick Erickson last week wrote that his record as governor "is more conservative than Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney combined," adding that, "Huntsman should be a conservative hero in this race." Huntsman, they point out, embraced Rep. Paul Ryan's controversial Medicare voucher plan (which Gingrich derided as "right wing social engineering"), wants to privatize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and has tax cutting bona fides, among other things.
For his part, Huntsman is actively making amends with the right, touring prominent conservative media outlets last week and even seeming to hedge his trust in scientists on global warming.
Huntsman's bipartisan cred (supplied by Obama himself) and reputation as a moderate willing to buck his party's fringe, could make an especially tough general election opponent. But first he has to hope the swinging conservative base has one more lurch in it.
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