Last week I suggested that Newt Gingrich’s greatest competitive advantage is that he can appeal to both wings of the Republican Party: the Crazies and the Orderlies. Following up on that, I have to admit that I find the break down in the latest Gallup poll kind of fascinating for what it might reveal about the Republican Party’s future:
(click to enbiggen.)
The conventional wisdom is that back in the 1960s and even into the 70s the GOP was the party of fiscal prudence and even (for Northeastern Republicans) of civil rights legislation. But Pat Buchanan sold Richard Nixon on pursuing a “Southern Strategy” designed to break the country in half and capture the biggest half for the Republicans, and the party began making its political appeal almost strictly on a race/cultural issues basis. The rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s helped foment this change, and the GOP started running on the (i) God, Gays and Guns (ii) “family values/abortion” and (iii) “the good Christian” platform.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan was the beneficiary of this strategy, and his election set the cultural tone in Washington for decades – Reagan was popular enough and successful enough that the political punditry now automatically gives this kind of “values voters” stuff a pass as “serious issues” with which “serious candidates” must grapple. As Ron Paul has spent years discovering, no matter how well one does in the polls, in the straw polls, with one’s campaign organization in the early states, etc., if the political punditry decides you’re not serious then it will simply ignore you and you don’t really have a shot at making it on the national stage.
The conventional wisdom is also that the social issues voters mobilizing for the Republicans over the past 30 years have been seen as little more than useful dupes by the Party Elite. Perhaps best articulated in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, the idea is that every election year Republican pols get the voters all heated up with social issues, promising to ban abortion, outlaw homosexuality, bring back school prayer, etc., then ride into office where they promptly forget about all that stuff and quietly continue funneling money and tax breaks to their wealthy patrons. The next election year, they just rinse and repeat.
And, indeed, maybe that is how the GOP Elite started this program, but I’ve always been curious as to how it all ends. The GOP has a feeder system in its Young Republican Clubs organized on campuses across the country, and after 30 years there has been an entire generation of Republicans who grew up listening to and voting on red-meat social issues. It has always seemed very likely to me that this new crop of Republican pols might not have gotten the message that they aren’t really supposed to take this stuff seriously.
That at least is one possible explanation for the clown car candidates we’ve seen on the debate stage this year. Watching the candidates tie themselves in knots so as to not accidently speak common sense and alienate the Republican base is like watching the rubber man at a carnival sideshow. Apparently, in order to snag the Republican nomination, one cannot believe in evolution, one cannot believe in man-made climate change, one cannot believe President Obama was born in the US, one cannot believe in contraception, one cannot believe that allowing same-sex couples to marry will not utterly destroy the United States, one cannot believe in any God other than the Baby Jesus, one cannot believe that tax cuts don’t always pay for themselves, one cannot believe that racism still exists in this country, one cannot believe that requiring citizens to purchase health insurance from private companies is not somehow “socialism,” one cannot believe that the Evil Libruls are not waging a “war on Christmas,” and the list just goes on and on and on.
It just may be that the Crazies have finally taken control of the Republican Party asylum. To be sure, that is what Liberals have been predicting since at least 1998, when Newt Gingrich launched his exceedingly unpopular war on President Clinton’s penis.
Still and all, it seems to me that – until this year, at least – the Republican Elite has managed to keep its hold over the party. Especially when it comes to national contests like the race for the Presidency, there always has been a strong sense that the eventual Republican nominee is whomever the inside players decide it should be, and that usually it is “somebody’s turn” to run for President.
In 1996, after the GOP’s halcyon years of Reagan and Bush I, it was Bob Dole’s “turn” to run for president. And I’ve always thought that one of the reasons John McCain was so embittered by his 2000 loss to L’il Boots was that it seemed clear Dubya had been hand selected to be the GOP’s candidate by some mysterious, closed-door process when by all rights it was McCain’s turn to run. Of course, he’d eventually get his turn in 2008, much good it did him.
And now we’re entering 2012 and by rights it would seem to be Romney’s turn at bat. After all, he’s been running for the job ever since 2007, and he definitely represents the Elite/Orderlies wing of the Republican Party – a soulless politician willing to say or do anything to win, which means once the Big Money Boyz buy him and hand him the election he will pretty well stay bought. (Of course, it helps that to a certain extent Romney is a Big Money Boy himself.)
So it must be shocking for him to now be facing a surprising insurgency from Newt Gingrich, a fellow who started his campaign by taking a two-week vacation in Greece, a fellow who clearly was running – like Herman Cain – as part of an extended book tour in order to drive up his speaking fees.
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One of the reasons I find that break down in the Gallup poll so interesting is that it asks Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents to self-identify themselves politically, and at least some of them identify as “Moderate/Liberal.” My guess, though, is that nobody who self-identified that way can actually be reasonably categorized as a “Moderate/Liberal” – the Republican Party just doesn’t have such people in its ranks any longer.
My guess – and, again, it is just a guess – is that people in the Republican Party who think of themselves as “Moderate/Liberal” are really just people who are overwhelmingly economically conservative, while not particularly interested in socially conservative issues. I imagine that Republicans who imagine themselves to be moderates are the Republicans who don’t care about demonizing gays, who don’t care about banning contraception, and who don’t care or even believe in the “war on Christmas.”
My guess is that these Republicans really only care about lowering their own income taxes, cutting spending for the poor, and shrinking the government until “it can be drowned in the bathtub.” By any objective measure, such voters are conservatives but - because they are Orderlies and not Crazies - they don’t identify themselves that way.
They also undoubtedly constitute Mitt Romney’s base. And if they still controlled the Republican Party, Romney would almost assuredly already have the nomination in the bag. But he doesn’t yet, and that may indicate that the Party Elite/Orderlies really have finally lost out to the Crazies. The committed Crazies may have finally taken over the asylum.
And the real danger to Romney now is that the Party Elite/Orderlies are going to be all-too-willing to throw him under the bus if they think doing so is necessary in order to preserve at least the appearance that they still control the party.
Already we’re beginning to see signs that the Very Serious People are working to convince us that Newt is a Very Serious Person too. In Time, Jon Meacham asks – apparently in all seriousness – whether Newt might be the next FDR. In The Washington Post, David Fahrenhold suggests that a Newt Gingrich presidency “could turn the White House into an idea factory.” (Admittedly, Fahrenhold goes on to suggest that many of Newt’s ideas are terrible ones that could “plunge the country into a constitutional crisis,” but that is not the spin Fahrenhold’s editor decided to go with on the headline.)
There is a reason Gingrich outperforms Romney so well among the self-identified Conservatives and Tea Party Supporters in that Gallup poll, and it is because the Republican base knows precisely who Gingrich is: he is who he’s always been, the bomb-throwing GOP anarchist willing to blow up the government if he thinks it will hurt the Liberals. Gingrich is no more a “serious candidate” than is Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain but having spent a decade and a half being recognized by the Villagers as a “respected elder statesman” – despite the fact he left office in disgrace – he can play a serious candidate on TeeVee.
My guess is that if the GOP movers are beginning to see the writing on the wall – if they think (as I do) that Gingrich has a real shot at stealing the nomination away from Mitt Romney – I expect to see a lot more of these glowing press reports about Gingrich’s “fearsome intelligence,” and “big ideas.” If the Very Serious Party Elite/Orderlies can convince enough people that Gingrich is really one of them, they can pretend that they haven’t lost complete control over their own party.
And as with the leaders of any institution, preserving their own power is more important to them than is preserving the institution itself. They will abandon Romney en masse if they think that is necessary to prevent the rest of us from noticing that they have no clothes. When that happens Gingrich – who already is pretty much tied with Romney among the Orderlies anyway (48-51) – will watch his numbers vault even higher as more Very Serious People decide they can bring themselves to vote for him too.