Archive for category Newt Gingrich
I was re-reading Game Change, a book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Two passages struck me:
“The candidates lined up at the urinals, Guiliani next to McCain next to Huckabee, the rest all in a row. The debate was soon to start, so they were taking care of business — and laughing merrily at the one guy who wasn’t there. Poking fun at him, mocking him, agreeing how much they disliked him. Then Willard Mitt Romney walked into the bathroom and overheard them, bringing on a crashing silence.” (Pgage 293)
“Unlike Guiliani, Romney had no reticence about slashing at his rivals. But the perception of him as a man without convictions made him a less than effective delivery system for policy contrasts. The combination of the vitriol of his attacks and his apparent corelessness explained the antipathy the other candidates had towards him. McCain routinely called Romney an ‘asshole’ and a ‘fucking phoney.’ Guiliani opined, ‘that guy will say anything.’ Huckabee complained, ‘I don’t think Romney has a soul.’ (Page 294)
Granted, that was in the heat of the 2008 race, but consider that even then Romney had a huge money and organizational advantage and he ended up succumbing quickly to John McCain — a man who had been considered dead a few months earlier due to a backlash in the GOP base against his stance on immigration reform. McCain had even said “why would I want to lead a party of such assholes” (page 284). But despite intense attacks from Limbaugh, Hannity and Glenn Beck, McCain emerged on top.
Fast forward to 2012. Williard Mittington Romney again has a huge advantage, this time having the GOP establishment in his pocket moreso than in 2008. Yet it seemed as if the Republicans were looking to find anyone else. If there had been a man with the record and character of John McCain in the running, he’d no doubt have managed to overcome Romney. But there wasn’t.
First was Bachmann, but she had no substance. Then came Perry, and he turned out to be embarrassingly unable to hold his own in debates and public grilling — a male Palin, if you will. Then they turned to Gingrich who, despite his numerous faults, was gaining traction and looked set to take down Romney. Romney used his money advantage to go hyper-negative on Gingrich and destroyed him. Gingrich was easy prey, to be sure, but still Romney couldn’t beat him by staying positive. Then last was Santorum who stuck around despite being an improbable candidate who had even lost his Senate seat in an election that wasn’t close. The Republicans had nowhere else to turn. But Santorum was simply too out of touch and weak. Romney emerged on top.
Simply, Romney hasn’t won by being himself or standing for something, he’s won inspite of the fact he can’t connect with voters and neither inspires nor excites. Where he did win in the past — the Governship of Massachusetts — he did so by embracing traditional northeast Republican pragmatism. He was pro-choice, pro-gay rights, and he created a health care program for the state that inspired much of what became Obamacare. That path is gone. However competent he may be for the office, he’s simply not a good candidate. He’s speeches are boring, if he goes off script he sounds out of touch, and as a candidate he seems like a phoney. Hardly anyone believes he meant all of what he said during the primary season.
Republicans try to console themselves with bouts of wishful thinking:
1. It’s a referendum on Obama. Here the thinking is that it doesn’t matter who the GOP candidate is, people are going to vote about the economy and whether or not they’re happy with Obama’s performance. As long as Romney doesn’t implode, he can simply allow all the negative ads to work against Obama and eek out a victory.
The problem with that argument is first that Obama isn’t that unpopular. His job approval rating is about 50%, which is on the low side for an incumbent (much like President Bush in 2004), but his personal approval remains high — Americans generally like their President. While he’s not the rock star he was in 2008, he has a record and has disproven the “he’s a radical left wing extremist” rhetoric the GOP tried to use last time.
Second, the economy is enigmatic. We’re growing, but growing slowly. Jobs are returning, but returning slowly. Obama didn’t fix it yet, but it was the GOP who broke it. The economy really hurts a President when things look pretty good when he takes over and then fall apart on his watch. That’s not the case with Obama. This means that people aren’t simply going to vote one way or another in a knee jerk manner based on the economy, they’re going to consider the candidates.
2. Obama’s lost his luster. Here the thinking is that reality has bitten the young President, whose hair is now turning grey and who no longer arouses hope and the excitement of 2008. As such, he’s vulnerable and weak.
The reason this would make a difference is that it could create an enthusiasm gap — Democrats won’t be as inspired and enthused as in 2008, while the Republicans will be focused on removing him from office. Both look unlikely at this point.
Obama’s speeches are still powerful, and the Republicans have given him some assistance. The extremist agenda and rhetoric of the tea party and the red meat primary campaign have galvanized Democrats. Obama can point to achievements and skewer a “do nothing Congress.” Obama would be in a lot more trouble if the Democrats had kept the House in 2010.
On the other hand, Republican enthusiasm for Romney is weak. Voting turn out in GOP primaries was meager — sometimes in the single digits. It’s not clear what the evangelical base will do in response to Romney’s Mormon faith. At this point the “enthusiasm gap” looks almost certain to favor the President.
It’s early, things can change, but right now Mitt Romney looks to be a very weak candidate. He’s never shown a capacity to connect with voters or inspire. He’s relied on attacks and weak opposition. Obama’s weathered just about every attack one can imagine. His capacity to come out of nowhere to win in 2008 show that no matter what you think of Obama as President, he certainly is a strong candidate.
A guy is bored with his girlfriend.
He cheats, first with a really provocative exciting woman, but she’s a bit crazy.
The next one appears beautiful, rugged and near perfect – but turns out to be as dumb as a rock.
The third is vivacious and intriguing, but sleeps around.
The fourth promises the moon but is haunted by the past.
Then after spending time with a prude
he realizes that though boring and predictable, he wants his original girlfriend back. That’s the GOP this year.
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.