GOPWars: Newt Gingrich, RINO in Chief?

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He was once a revolutionary himself, challenging the party structure, blasting away orthodoxies and storming to power. But former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich finds himself in the role of the old guy in the basement. Last night, appearing on Fox News's "Greta!" Van Susteren, Gingrich found himself urging conservatives not to forsake the adequate at the expense of a party that can win national elections.

This sounds like the debate that out-parties always have. Activists stress ideological purity and party apparatchiks stress coalition-building. Activists question the fidelity of the national party committees to principles (e.g., to quote Christ, "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Matt. 16:26 NIV)); the national party committees question the activists' relationship to reality.

Specific to the Republican Party in late 2009, there are at least five points. One is that the technological and communication infrastructure exist to magnify and amplify the activists' influence relative to the influence of the party bosses. A second is the conviction, among activists, that the GOP has been too much of a top-down party for too long, and that sending a message of disapproval is a legitimate short-term goal even if it temporarily results in defeats. A third is that the GOP -- which I'll define as people who define themselves as Republicans and independent conservatives who'll vote Republican in an election year -- is shrinking. Demography favors the Democrats. A fourth is the existence of a movement that accepts populist conservative ideology but rejects the GOP's effort to be their messengers. The fifth is the presence of conservative superstars like Sarah Palin who are capable of leading an inter-party movement, should one be created.

Gingrich makes several arguments. Some are straw-men-y -- activists aren't abdicating their belief in "state's rights" by supporting a candidate they choose. Indeed, in arguing that supporters of Doug Hoffman's in New York's 23 congressional district are bucking "local control and local authority," he's playing into the argument that party leaders are choosing the wrong candidates. Gingrich's better point is that conservative activists must be willing to accept more than a few degrees of independence in order to make sure that Republicans win seats in non-Republican areas. NY 23 is a GOP district, one of the more conservative in New York state.

"So I say to my many conservative friends who suddenly decided that whether they're from Minnesota or Alaska or Texas, they know more than the upstate New York Republicans?"

Minnesota, Alaska and Texas are different places, Mr. Speaker. If Hoffman could win Republican primaries in CDs in all of those states, then he surely could win in a conservative district in New York, too.

The better argument is that Hoffman might win in an off-year special election where non-liberals split their vote, but he's not the type of Republican who will win even in high-turnout midterm elections outside of the South.

And I think if this third party candidate takes away just enough votes to elect the Democrat, then we will have strengthened Nancy Pelosi by the divisiveness. We will not have strengthened the conservative movement.

This is the question, really. I don't think Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-MN) endorsed Doug Hoffman because he knew Hoffman would win. He endorsed Hoffman because he knew that he would be penalized if he didn't. Hoffman's become a litmus test for activists who, for better or for worse, are going to control the narrative of the party in the next few years because the party has no voice.

Before the tech/comms revolution, it was easy for local Republicans and national Republicans to conspire to nominate "electable" candidates. Now, thanks to the existence of a television network like Fox, which will make heroes out of conservative revolutionaries, to the persistence of conservative talk radio (which divorced the GOP after the Bush era), to the entrepreneurship of conservatives like Erick Erickson, marginal figures like Doug Hoffman can become mainstream overnight.

The activist's calculation is different than Gingrich's. It's that the local GOP should have found a more conservative candidate to begin with, not a socially liberal Republican.

On such as abortion, gay marriage, which means that she's about where Rudy Giuliani was when he became mayor. And yet Rudy Giuliani was a great mayor. And so this idea that we're suddenly going to establish litmus tests, and all across the country, we're going to purge the party of anybody who doesn't agree with us 100 percent -- that guarantees Obama's reelection. That guarantees Pelosi is Speaker for life. I mean, I think that is a very destructive model for the Republican Party.

Gingrich is saying that the ideologue's fantasy is that there are enough conservatives in enough areas so that conservatives can actually run as conservatives -- since conservatism is the pluralist ideology of Americans -- and win elections.

 I believe in a Republican Party big enough to have representation in every part of the country, and I believe you don't strengthen yourself by having a purge. You strengthen yourself by attracting more people, not by driving people away.

We live in an era where people can define themselves by their ideology more than their party. And that makes these "big tent' arguments difficult. Gingrich may be right. He may also be overstating his case. It may be true that Republicans can nominate more conservative candidates than they've been nominating, and certainly, at a time when people are frustrated by taxes and spending and debt and a bad economy, it makes sense to push back against the party.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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