The nation is angry. Registered Republicans are very angry. The far Right of the Republican Party with a heavy presence in South Carolina are the angriest. Newt Gingrich, in the last few debates became the standard bearer for this populist dissatisfaction, boldly approaching the boundaries of political correctness by attacking President Obama as the “food stamp president” and then ripping the “liberal media” and debate moderator John King for asking him about his former wife's recent charge that he wanted an “open marriage” so he could pursue his affair with his current wife.
Mitt Romney, throughout the caucus/primary season has been unable to show the same kind of passion necessary to harness this anger of conservative voters but with the conservative vote divided until now, he did better than expected in Iowa and was successful as a quasi “favorite son” in New Hampshire. Now, with Bachmann, Cain and Perry gone and Santorum assuming “also ran” status, Gingrich has established a “band wagon” type momentum reflected in his recent surge in the post South Carolina polls in Florida.
Gingrich's new found popularity may be more style than substance however. There is no question that large numbers of Americans, especially Republicans, are fed up with what Newt describes as arrogance and seemingly endless government expansion. So it's not surprising that his pit bull campaign and debate style have created some excitement in a dispirited electorate. But it has already stimulated the inevitable response from both the Romney campaign and the liberal political media and Obama supporters. Gingrich's record as Speaker of the House is spotty in terms of both leadership and outcomes. His post congressional career as a lobbyist and his dalliance with Nancy Pelosi in support of anti-business global warming legislation, and some perceived softness on illegal immigration could create a backlash similar to the party's reevaluation of early “true conservatives” Bachmann, Cain and Perry. If that happens, the impact on the Republican prospects for defeating Obama could be serious.
Gingrich's surprise victory in South Carolina was aided by vicious negative campaigning which had all the appearance of a bar fight with a potential fratricidal outcome. Gingrich and Santorum abandoned all civility and focus on issues and solutions, and engaged in desperate and irrelevant personal attacks on front runner Mitt Romney, implying that he was either a tax cheater because he had not released his tax returns, or had made money in private business that Gingrich described as “vulture capitalism” because some investments in companies failed and businesses were forced to downsize or shut down. This surprising anti-business rant will resurface in the hands of the Obama campaign if Romney becomes the nominee.
The madness and invective is not limited to the candidates themselves; a legion of self anointed keepers of the far right flame of ideological orthodoxy have joined the fray. Blogger John Hawkins is nearly hysterical in his opposition to Romney, offering as evidence of Romney's weaknesses that he “is the antithesis of everything the Tea Party stands for”; and strangely, that he's an example of what the Occupy Wall Street protestors hate. This makes little sense since the OWS protestors hate the Tea Party and the Tea Party hates the protestors. So far to the Right is Hawkins that he disparages former Republican nominee Bob Dole and even President Nixon. Thus in his mind, Romney is an “establishment endorsed Rockefeller Republican guilty of a list of “moderate” heresies
The issue with the most weight is the much discussed Massachusetts health care plan that was
passed while Romney was governor. Romney has pointed out that the plan was passed in the nation's most liberal state by a legislature which was 86% controlled by Democrats. His position that he is opposed to Obama's national health care legislation which is similar in its mandated coverage, has not been convincing to conservative doubters. But Steve McCann of “American Thinker” goes further, saying that Romney is the product of the “governing class”, the same nefarious group that “gave the country George H.W. Bush”, who in his mind was another unprincipled moderate. Thus McCann arrives at the absurd conclusion that “Romney will spell the end of the Republican Party.” His choice? Libertarian isolationist and government minimalist, failed senatorial candidate (1984), failed presidential candidate (1988 and 2008), seventy six year old Congressman Ron Paul.
In South Carolina, Gingrich kept up a harsh drumbeat against excessive federal spending which along with his angry and self assured style, resonated with voters. Exit polls showed that 57% thought the president's highest priority should be “cutting budget deficits even if is limits job growth”. Gingrich won this cohort by 41% to 26% over Romney. But Gingrich won on every issue which leads to the question of how representative the South Carolina Republican electorate really is. South Carolina is a high unemployment state. Sixty-five percent of voters considered themselves to be evangelicals and 60% said it was important that a candidate shared their religious beliefs. Gingrich won this category of voters with 46%. Romney received 20%. Sixty-four percent of voters supported the Tea Party movement. Voters who said “electability” i.e. beating Obama, was the most important consideration picked Gingrich over Romney by 51% to 37%.
However, the most disturbing thing about the way the Republican campaign has evolved is the attempt by Gingrich, Santorum, Paul and the now departed Rick Perry, to divide the party into a tribal like competition between so called “real conservatives” and the ill defined but absurdly demonized “moderates”.
Although Romney positions on all the important issues are the same “conservative” positions as his opponents, the charge implies that being a “moderate” and being a “conservative” are somehow mutually exclusive, and being described as a moderate is on the same level as being called a liberal, presumably with the same effect on a conservative electorate. It may indeed have had this effect in South Carolina but in fact this is ridiculous. Conservatism is a political philosophy, an ideology. There is no “moderate” political ideology. The term, as applied to politicians, is more of a characteristic of temperament and depends on the issue and the political context. It is not an across the board commitment. Both liberals and conservatives take moderate positions from time to time. The term is generally defined as one who avoids extreme positions, and common synonyms found in dictionaries are: “ reasonable, temperate, judicious, just, cool, steady, and calm”; traits sadly in short supply in the current campaign.
Whether Romney or any of the other candidates would apply these personal characteristics in the Oval Office is hard to know, but essentially, they lend themselves to the difficult job of getting things done in the currently highly partisan Washington, D.C. environment. Sacrificing the “good in pursuit of the ideologically perfect”, when the perfect is politically unattainable, manifests itself as “gridlock”. Obama was disparaged as a moderate by the far Left for his willingness to extend the “Bush tax cuts”, keep the Guantanamo Bay prison open and pursue a “surge” strategy in the Afghan war. The American public continually voices its disdain for “do nothing Congresses” as the congressional approval rate over the last year of about 13% indicates. Conservative Republicans need to vigorously oppose extremism on the Left without erecting rigid ideological barriers to progress.
Much can change in the coming ten months but currently polls show a “generic Republican” leading Obama by 1.2%. In individual match ups as of Jan. 15th, Obama leads Romney by only 1.9%. He leads Gingrich by 11% and Santorum by 9.5%. Clearly there is a real opportunity for a Republican victory in November. However, this could be squandered by the current intra-party hostility.
The nomination battle has come down to Romney and Gingrich. Santorum chose to make himself the “values” candidate in order to win Iowa's large evangelical vote. He has not, and will not, be able to broaden his appeal as an effective leader in the economic struggle or national security areas. His thinly disguised anti-Mormon, anti-abortion endorsement by a conclave of one hundred evangelical ministers will not help. Gingrich is an intelligent, knowledgeable, effective debater with a proven, if controversial political background as Speaker of the House. He has a lot of ideas, some of which have real merit. His potential weakness is that in his zeal to destroy Romney's credibility and in his effort to be the model of structured conservatism, he has gone overboard, and outside of the conservative core which is reflected in the South Carolina electorate, he may well have created an image of mean spirited and erratic recklessness. The one third of the national electorate who are Independents will decide the 2012 election and it would behoove Gingrich, the conservative media, and Republican voters to focus on the candidates proposals to fix the economy and protect American interests in the world and set aside the labels, personal attacks, purist ideology, and the phony “character issues” which are just windows to throw mud and votes out of.