Newt Gingrich usually resides on a separate astral plane. But out of stubborn pride or the momentary regeneration of the rusty sense of strategy that bought the GOP control of the House in 1994 — for the first time in four decades — the former House speaker and soon-to-be-former presidential candidate dared one of the few sensible comments in the recent New Hampshire debate. He essentially repeated, in muted form, his earlier critique of Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposal to save Medicare by destroying it. This time, Gingrich didn’t call it "right-wing social engineering"; but he insisted that if "you can't have a conversation with the country where the country thinks what you're doing is the right thing, you better slow down."

I have to wonder why Gingrich himself didn't slow down before repudiating his own initial description of the Ryan plan with the preposterous excuse that his words were taken out of context. (My rule here is simple: When you plead "out of context," you’re confessing that’s exactly what you actually said.) Instead Gingrich could have gone to the seniors who disproportionately populate the Tea Party with a message that, however false it was then, resonated powerfully during the storm over health care reform. He could have said that he was willing to wager his campaign for a cause: "Keep your government hands off Medicare" — even if the hands are attached to the arms of a conservative Republican.

At least in the debate, Gingrich offered up a modified, limited climbdown that clung to the shards of his pungent and entirely accurate diagnosis of the Ryan poison pill that could kill the House Republican majority. But after this brief burst of sanity, Gingrich reverted to the far-fetched form of his latter day incarnation; for example, he said the answer to illegal immigration was to deploy "half" of the suits at the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C., to Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, where they would be "enough" to control the border. Presumably, they would bring along the firepower of their desktops, pencils, and threat assessment spreadsheets.

The GOP debate was not only economically vapid, but downright ugly, as the participants trafficked in appeals to fear and intolerance.

But why pay attention to Gingrich at all when the real news this night was that no one opened a crack in the plastic facade of the front-running Mitt Romney — while former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the other candidate presumed in advance to be truly serious, was almost comical in his contorted refusal to repeat to Romney’s face the attack he’d launched the day before on “Obamneycare.” Then, of course, there was Michele Bachmann, the upgraded Palin clone, who seized the spotlight by announcing her candidacy right there on stage. (It was a first in the annals of presidential politics, but you can bet it won’t be the last.) Bachmann sounded coherent, and her arresting presence shaded the rest of the second string crew of reactionary also-rans, including the suddenly boring torchbearer of libertarian resentment, Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

The commentators focused almost exclusively on the horse race coverage. But what makes Gingrich’s oscillation from good sense back to nonsense so relevant was that it revealed the essential character of the present Republican campaign. On what they call the central issue of the economy, the so-called serious candidates had nothing to say. On other issues, the field competed to pander to prejudice. 

Romney, the self-proclaimed candidate of "jobs, jobs, jobs," advocated a thin gruel of sloganeering policies that would destroy jobs — which, in fact, is how this supposed job creator made his fortune in the private sector as he downsized and dismembered companies. His solution to a demand-depleted economy is to drain more demand by slashing federal spending rather than timing deficit reduction to coincide with an accelerated recovery. He spoke in stilted clichés about the "balanced budget" as an inherent good — easy politics and bad economics, which has a grip on popular imagination, especially on the anti-government Right. 

Romney seemed to be operating in a fact-free zone. Amid a fog of double-talk, he declined to admit he was wrong in predicting that the bailout which rescued the auto industry would mean "you can kiss [it] good-bye." With evasion, and without any economically literate explanation, he seemed to suggest that it might be acceptable not to raise the federal debt ceiling. He knows that would be an economic disaster, but perhaps he sees an economic collapse as his best route to the White House. In his cheapest shot, he even accused the president of weakening and prolonging a recession which has already ended — at a time when growth is sluggish not because Obama acted, but because congressional Republicans have resisted every measure for recovery. 

Pawlenty has taken the same addled position, while also arguing to cut the deficit by profligately cutting taxes — a tested and failed approach which he redeems by magically assuming an unfounded and incredible future growth rate of 5 percent a year. If Brazil and China can grow that fast, why can’t we, he asked with a tone of fervent patriotism. Maybe T-Paw doesn’t realize it, but they’re developing economies.

The debate featured a series of straw men — in terms of both candidates and clichéd economics. And there was a favorite piñata too – the predictable one: ObamaCare, which in the GOP’s fantasy economics is responsible for a veritable plague of ills. Bachmann, whose strength is performance art rather than public policy, falsely asserted that according to the Congressional Budget Office, health-care reform "will kill 800,000 jobs." What the CBO actually reported was that 800,000 older Americans who today have to keep working to keep their health coverage would be able to retire at 63 or 64. 

The GOP debate was not only economically vapid, but downright ugly, as the participants either trafficked in, or fellow-travelled with, appeals to fear and intolerance. Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, amplified his distinctive contribution to the campaign — an overt call for religious discrimination against American Muslims. It was shameful to watch the other candidates cower — to hear Gingrich imply that because of their Muslim faith, such Americans might not be loyal; to witness Romney’s mincing as he nodded to "tolerance," but assured the audience that he too would be careful to appoint only those he was "comfortable with."

No one on that stage rose to the defense of American Muslims or ventured to reprove Cain. But most of the candidates rushed to reassure the right wing on the question of gay rights. They were against the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, for a constitutional prohibition of same-sex marriage — although Bachmann had to get there by backtracking from her support for state "self-determination" under the 10th Amendment. The exceptions here were Paul — no surprise — and Cain, who may have decided that he’d marketed enough prejudice for one night.

Romney and Pawlenty clearly would have preferred to de-emphasize these issues, but they dutifully passed the proffered litmus tests. A former Republican officeholder, still active in the party, lamented that if you want to have a chance you have to cater to the fringe: "And it’s worse now that it’s ever been."

Shortly after the debate, Esquire quoted John Weaver, the longtime McCain strategist, scorning the GOP field as "the weakest since 1940." The New Hampshire debate provided plenty of evidence for his conclusion that the Republican Party "is nowhere near being a national governing party." Weaver intends to change that by ushering former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman into the fray. We shall see — whether the fringe that is the Republican primary electorate will accept him, and what he’s willing to do to make himself acceptable. 

Waiting for Huntsman, yearning for Chris Christie of New Jersey, or Rick Perry of Texas: By the end of Monday's debate, it was easier than ever to understand why. Americans seem to grasp the implausibility of the men — and the woman — who so starkly revealed themselves in New Hampshire. Even in the new economic doldrums, President Obama leads Romney by 6 points — and outside the South by far more — in the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Pawlenty gets trounced — and so would Bachmann, although it’s now conceivable that a fevered GOP might just nominate her. 

I know which side I’m on as 2012 approaches, but I know the country deserves a genuine debate about the future. That wasn’t what we saw and heard from New Hampshire the other night. The debate was less serious and less substantive than Saturday Night Live. Maybe Herman Cain should have ordered some takeout pizza to be delivered on stage.