When Ronald Reagan won the Presidency in 1980, he charmed Americans as a man of character who was inherently good natured and calmly confident. When Jimmy Carter tried to jab him in debates he said “there you go again,” with a smile. No anger, no bile.
The one time Reagan did get angry was when George H.W. Bush tried to keep a New Hampshire debate to two people. Reagan’s ire was not at Bush but at the moderator who was ordering “Turn off Governor Reagan’s microphone.” A visibly agitated Reagan stood up, and said with steely resolve “I am paying for this microphone,” and got thunderous applause.
Reagan was elected, however, for his optimism and character more than his ideology. Since Reagan it’s hard to find a successful candidate who ran on anger. Bill Clinton was charisma and hope, George W. Bush espoused a “compassionate conservatism,” with a vow to unite. Barack Obama promised “change we can believe in.” That last angry candidate was Richard Nixon, though most of the anger we know about now was hidden from the public. In the history of media intensive US elections (the last sixty years or so) there has never been someone with an angry and volatile persona like Newt Gingrich who has won the White House.
Add to that his ethical failures — serving divorce papers to his wife while she’s in bed with cancer, having to leave the House Speaker position and being fined $300,000 for ethics violations in Congress, and numerous stories that show him to be arrogant and extremely self-centered only accentuate the unlikelihood that he could be elected President.
So what the heck are the Republicans in South Carolina thinking? Is the GOP really going to ditch Romney not for a new visionary to lead the party into the future, but an angry ‘blast from the past’ with a blemished character and lack of appeal beyond the GOP base?
Probably not. Gingrich plays better in the south and in the more conservative states. The GOP primary battle will be a slog, and the party establishment fears he could not only fail to defeat President Obama, but could perhaps endanger Republican efforts to take the Senate or keep its House majority. Still, this says something about the state of the Republican party.
Many Republicans are driven by nostalgia, seeing a 21st Century America that looks far different than the country they grew up in. That is also much of what drives the tea party – nostalgia for the loss of an America they remember from the past. The white middle class ethos and life style of the late 20th Century have given way to a new cultural landscape. From the shining city on the hill with a vibrant economy and unquestioned world leadership to economic collapse and international decline, everything about the country has changed.
This has happened before. Nixon and the “silent majority” was a response to the changes brought by the sixties counter culture. Rock music, women’s liberation, the civil rights movement, a growing social welfare system all caused a yearning for the America of the 50s. Not that the fifties were all that great in objective terms, but change yields an idolized view of the past. That was the real America, somehow we lost it.
Of course, the cultural changes of the sixties and seventies took root. Cultural change is inevitable and real. America’s future will never be from its past.
Nonetheless, with a black President with foreign roots, an Occupy Wall Street movement that challenges the status quo, and international crises that call into question our faith in the economy and the US role in the world, it’s possible that Gingrich can pull a Nixon – perhaps anger can win. I doubt it. Nixon may have ultimately been more flawed a human than Gingrich, but he constructed an effective public persona. Gingrich’s problems are well documented and should he get the nomination the ad hominems will be intense, and almost certainly effective.
Can he pivot? Right now he has to play to the right wing of the GOP now to get the nomination. But his past work with Nancy Pelosi on climate change and other clearly moderate positions also define his record. His recent attacks on Romney at Bain Capital have echoed some of the concerns of Occupy Wall Street about capitalist excess. Might the anger and venom of the primary season give way to reason and calm vision? Will a “new Gingrich” bury the old one, with the public forgiving or shrugging at his personal problems in order to express the view of the new “silent majority” that change is coming in a too fast and too scary manner?
Perhaps. Gingrich has proven as malleable in his politics as Romney, but his angry forceful manner makes it appear he’s sticking to a principled script. Yet just as the cultural changes of the 60s were real and did not go away at all with the elections of Nixon or Reagan, the changes that the tea party and the right decry are likely to remain a part of what America is becoming regardless who wins. And perhaps in 2044 we’ll see a candidate running on the notion that we need to get back “America as it once was” – back in the old fashioned era of circa 2012.