The Harvard Political Review is a nonpartisan publication that strives to offer critical analysis and a wide variety of opinions and perspectives. The author of this piece is a US Associate Editor, and works as an intern with the Romney campaign.
Like many Establishment Republicans, I spent last weekend wondering what was happening to the world. Newt over Mitt? Why?
Because Newt is more conservative? No
Labeled “the least conservative candidate” by conservative standard-bearer George Will, Gingrich has often strayed from modern conservatism—here’s a (partial) rundown. He pushed the federal health insurance mandate long before Romney implemented a state mandate, and he later applauded the passage of Romneycare. He has savaged Bain Capital in particular and private equity in general, fundamentally questioning free enterprise and “embarrassing” himself in the Wall Street Journal’s estimation. He attacked Paul Ryan’s entitlement reform plan, the conservative political Bible, as “right wing social engineering.” He appeared in an ad with Nancy Pelosi pushing for climate change solutions, his immigration stance is well to the Left of Romney’s, and he was the victim of conservative rebellion as Speaker of the House.
If Gingrich had stood by his less-than-conservative beliefs, that would be one thing. He could say, ‘yeah I have some positions that don’t mesh with orthodox conservatism, but at least I’m being honest with you about what I believe.’ He hasn’t, though. He branded his support for a health insurance mandate “wrong,” called his denigration of Paul Ryan’s reform plan a “mistake,” and referred to the climate change ad as “probably the dumbest single thing I’ve done in recent years.”
So Newt isn’t more conservative than the alleged Massachusetts moderate, and he’s a flip-flopper too. We can rule out consistent conservatism as the reason for the Gingrich surge.
Is it because he is the populist in the race? No
Romney and Gingrich may both seem out of touch—Romney because he really is smarter and more successful than most, Gingrich because he only thinks he is. Romney is an elite by nature, Gingrich by choice. Newt is the author of perhaps the most elitist note in history in which he characterized himself as an “Advocate of civilization, defender of civilization, teacher of the rules of civilization, arouser of those who form civilization, organizer of the pro-civilization activists, and leader ‘possibly’ of the civilizing forces.” He was pompous enough to suggest he is such a good historian, not just such a good Washington insider, that Freddie Mac paid him $1.6 million for his opinion, and he has revealed that he made $60,000 per appearance on the speaking circuit. Personal qualities in general can’t be driving the Gingrich surge given his history of infidelity, ethics charges, Tiffany’s expenditures, and more.
If voters were looking for the most non-elite candidate (Ron Paul aside), they would have gone to Santorum, not Gingrich.
So is it because Newt is better equipped to handle today’s issues? No
The central issue of this entire election season is the economy—Romney markets himself as the turnaround artist and business expert who will fix it, but Gingrich has no similar case to make. Romney’s strengths and the needs of the country overlap well, but Gingrich has no business experience to bring to the White House. Instead, he is a Washington insider and former politician, and thus he cannot speak to the anti-Washington sentiments and economic frustrations many Americans are feeling.
Voters may be looking for someone who can debate Obama in the fall, and Newt is a good talker, but so is Mitt. It’s not critical current issues that are behind the Gingrich resurgence.
What the Gingrich appeal is really about
If the Gingrich appeal is not about conservatism, populism, or solutions for today’s pressing issues, then what is it about? It’s about anger. Gingrich has been successful because he has been the maddest.
Republican primary voters are furious about the Obama presidency and the direction of the country, and Gingrich manifests that anger better than any other candidate. His tirades against the liberal media and personal attacks on President Obama are met with standing ovations and roaring applause. Romney, meanwhile, channels Ronald Reagan, cheerfully focusing on American exceptionalism and optimistically looking forward to an “American century” guided by conservative ideals.
The problem is, this isn’t the Reagan era. Just look at how many times per day Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment, “thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican,” is violated. Good candidates like Jon Huntsman and Tim Pawlenty who didn’t embrace the doctrine of anger have failed. Huntsman’s characterization of President Obama as a “remarkable leader” was a near campaign-ender in its own right, and Tim Pawlenty was derided for refusing to repeat his attack line on Obamneycare in front of Romney. They weren’t mean enough, mad enough.
In South Carolina, this primary was really about, to the exclusion of nearly all other considerations, who showed the most anger. Gingrich’s indignation may score him more victories, but only if Romney doesn’t take note. All Romney has to do is start spitting some venom. Candidates for public office attack and question one another’s character and qualifications all the time, but this is different. This is about anger for anger’s sake.
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