Explaining The GOP Attraction To Gingrich
Gingrich is rising in the polls for reasons that help him in the primary race, but may hurt in a General Election.
The one question that political observers have been asking themselves over the past several weeks as we’ve seen Newt Gingrich rise in the polls to the point where he may now arguably be called the frontrunner for the GOP nomination is how it could have possibly happened. As has been noted repeatedly here and elsewhere, Newt Gingrich’s personal and political baggage suggest, at least at first glance, that he’d be a horrible match for the conservative base of the party, especially in states like Iowa and South Carolina where evangelicals and Tea Party supporters dominate the electorate. Newt’s personal record is well known, and while some of the worst stories, such as serving his wife with divorce papers while she was dying of cancer, have been debunked, the general facts have been out there for years. Politically, though, Gingrich’s incompatibility with the conservative wing of his party is what makes his rise in the polls even more puzzling. For the past 13 years, Gingrich has worked and lobbied for some of America’s biggest interest groups to advance their interest, which in all cases included massive expansion of the government. Even leaving aside that, Newt’s own erratic style and the criticisms of his leadership while Speaker suggest that he really would not be fit to be President.
And yet, like I said, he’s leading in the polls and seems to have enough momentum behind him to carry him through to Iowa, and possible New Hampshire. So, the question is why this is happening and why other candidates that are arguably better on the issues than Gingrich — Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman — come to mind aren’t doing better than someone like Newt.
Matt Lewis has one theory that he shared in his Daily Caller blog yesterday:
Clearly, Gingrich’s debating ability is key. Republicans are champing at the bit to see him debate Obama. But I think this urge is deeper than a desire to simply watch him beat up or attack the president rhetorically — they also want him to intellectuallyflatten him — to out-debate him.
There are other reasons. Some voters are romantic; they want to believe in something. They want to be (as unconservative as it may sound) a bit revolutionary. There’s nothing romantic or revolutionary about Mitt Romney. Gingrich supporters may be deluding themselves, but he is, at least, exciting. He has panache.
He’s also a happy warrior. He has energy. He loves campaigning. It makes him stronger, not weaker. And it shows.
… And, of course, there’s the fact that Gingrich just had good timing. He peaked at the right time.
The last — and probably most important argument for Newt Gingrich — is that he’s not Mitt Romney. And if you buy the argument that this is now a two-man race, that might be a deciding factor. Time is dwindling. Newt may be the only alternative — so maybe he’s not so bad? (The Germans have a word for this: Mut der Verzweiflung — the courage born of desperation.)
The debating ability/”Happy warrior” argument is one that I hear frequently from Gingrich supporters. To be sure, Gingrich’s performance in the Republican debates to date has been a rhetorical tour de force, and no doubt entertaining to the red meat conservatives that seem to be flocking to him. On more than one occasion, he’s turned the tables on debate moderators and questioners, something that goes over really well in a GOP that is highly suspicious of the media to begin with. Additionally, whatever one might say about his academic credentials and his judgment, Gingrich clearly has command of facts in a wide variety of public policy areas that candidates like Perry, Bachmann, and the departed Herman Cain simply don’t have. So, in a debate, Gingrich comes across as intelligent, enthusiastic, and willing to take on opponents. That stands in stark contrast to more sober candidates like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman.
There’s just one problem I have with the argument that Gingrich’s debating skills, such as they are, will be a positive when it comes time to appear for the three Presidential debates that will occur in September and October of 2012. For one thing, the format of those debates is going to be far, far different from the debates that Gingrich has participated in so far. The moderator and reporters will mostly likely predominantly be from mainline news organizations, and the questions are likely to be far more detailed, for one thing. For another, Gingrich would be standing next to the President of the United States, not just a bunch of people who think they can be President. The difficulty of competing with that image shouldn’t be underestimated, just ask people like Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, and John Kerry. Finally, I think Republicans vastly underestimate how the President is likely to come across in those debates, and overestimate how well Gingrich will do. Say what you will about the President, but Barack Obama is no slouch as a debater, something he proved during the primary race with Hillary Clinton in 2008 and in the General Election.The idea that he’s going to cower in fear over Newt Gingrich is just silly. As for Gingrich, the same qualities that have helped in appeal to GOP voters in the Republican debates could make him come across as arrogant and egomaniacal in the more disciplined atmosphere of a General Election debate. Those Republicans eager for a Newt-Obama matchup on debate nights should be careful what they wish for.
Lewis has a point that Gingrich’s more energetic form of conservatism has an appeal to voters that cannot be discounted, but, again, that’s a quality that could end up coming back to bite them if they make him their nominee. This is the same Newt Gingrich who offended many outside the GOP with his over-the-top comments about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” and his recent comments about child labor come across to some as demeaning of minority and poor families with his suggestion that they don’t have a work ethic. He has an record of making appalling statements about fundamental individual rights. And, most importantly, he has a history of just throwing ideas out there without really thinking about them, if he does that during the Presidential campaign his reputation as something of an intellectual gadfly is likely to return. Again, this is a quality that clearly appeals to Republican primary voters but may not help much when it comes to winning a General Election.
Gingrich has benefited most, of course, from the fact that he is the “Not Romney” who happens to be peaking at what looks to be the optimal time. Absent a major gaffe, he’s likely to stay around where he is in the polls through the end of the month, meaning that it’s more and more likely that the GOP will end up with a two-man race by the time January is over. When they get to that point, though, they need to ask themselves if those things they like about Gingrich are for real, and whether they’re really going to help them win the White House.
Historical analogies are never perfect. However, right now, the Republican race seems to be looking a lot like the 1972 Democratic primary race. In that race, Edmumd Muskie was the steady establishment candidate, perhaps not as liberal as someone like McGovern, but also looking like he would have a far better chance of beating Nixon than a candidate that was clearly only appealing to the base of the Democratic Party. In the end, though, the Democrats handed the baton to McGovern, and we all know what happened after that. If the Republicans go for the McGovernite Gingrich, they could end up suffering a similar fate.