Blame the GOP Establishment for the Rise of Gingrich

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It's Beltway "thought leaders" on the right who are responsible for this flawed candidate.

Newt Gingrich - AP Photo:Charlie Neibergall - banner.jpg

When a candidate wins a primary, there are typically some pundits making the case that he or she is in fact the superior choice on the merits. But that isn't really true after Newt Gingrich's win in South Carolina. Even on the right, it's hard to find many people who'll defend his candidacy on those grounds. Conservatives don't come right out and say that Palmetto State voters should be embarrassed for elevating a pompous, erratic, undisciplined serial adulterer who took $1.6 million to peddle influence on behalf of Freddie Mac, supported everything Tea Partiers insist they hated about the Bush Administration, and was unable to manage even a modest campaign staff successfully. It's apparent, however, that they perceive in his win something that needs defending, for the analysis on offer is mostly exculpatory explanations for why voters did this.

Take Erick Erickson's analysis.

Debate performances help explain Saturday's result, the Red State founder begins, "but it has just as much to do with a party base in revolt against its thought and party leaders in Washington, D.C. The base is revolting because they swept the GOP back into relevance in Washington just under two years ago and they have been thanked with contempt... Adding insult to injury, the party and thought leaders now try to foist on the base a milquetoast moderate from Massachusetts. Newt Gingrich can thank Mitt Romney and more for the second look he is getting. Base hostility will now be exacerbated by Mitt Romney's backers now undoubtedly making a conscious effort to prop up Rick Santorum to shut down Newt Gingrich." Tellingly, the notion that voters assessed every candidate and decided they prefer Gingrich for the substance of his record, his platform, and his character isn't even considered. The near consensus is that there must be something else to explain his victory.

Or to blame for it.

I'll shortly lay out my own theory of Gingrich. But first let's think through the flaw in Erickson's take. He writes as if the "thought leaders" on the right are milquetoast moderates urging sobriety and moderation on restive voters. Is he observing the same political landscape as me? On the right, it is Fox News, talk radio, and sites like RedState that enjoy the most influence over primary voters. Ever since President Obama was elected, these "thought leaders" have insisted that the most important reality for citizens to grasp is that we're being led by an Alinskyite Kenyan anti-colonialist eager to radically transform America with the help of a sycophantic, untrustworthy mainstream media. Yes, these "thought leaders" admitted that he's an American citizen, but it isn't like they've personally seen his birth certificate, if you catch their drift -- they're too busy cataloging the "apology tour" he's been on and his efforts to bring about Israel's destruction.

Doesn't that sound familiar? There are places on the right, like National Review, where one can read plenty of sober Obama critiques. But even there, it's common practice to misleadingly truncate a certain quote to make it seem as though the president doesn't believe in American exceptionalism. And the magazine's national-security columnist published a book asserting that Obama leads the left in an alliance with our Islamist enemy. Others at the magazine and elsewhere in the GOP establishment do indeed support Mitt Romney. Put their names on a list. You won't find anyone who has any greater claim to being a "thought leader" than Rush Limbaugh or George Will or Erick Erickson or Sarah Palin, none of whom is a Romney backer.

So why this exaggerated narrative, wherein the establishment foists Mitt Romney on an unwilling Republican primary electorate? I'll tell you. GOP partisans are eager to persuade themselves that the base is engaged in a sympathetic protest against malign elites, because the alternative is accepting that they've been manipulated by a flip-flopping pol who offered red meat and ressentiment in place of substance. In fact, it is Tea Partiers and "thought-leaders" from their wing of the Republican Party who are as much to blame as anyone for Romney's shot at the nomination, and the emergence of Gingrich as his last serious obstacle to running against Obama. Just ponder the pathetic alternatives that non-moderate Republicans and movement conservatives produced in 2012: Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain. As GOP voters are well aware, this is a flawed bunch, and their respective failures cannot be blamed on academics or scientists or media elites or secularists or any other conservative bogeyman.

And Gingrich himself? It is absurd to treat him as a credible champion for voters eager to protest Washington, D.C., "thought leaders" and their establishment machinations. This is an un-conservative career politician who spent the years after he left office as a fellow at a prominent D.C. think tank; ran a for-profit organization that profited off the intersection of government and health care; and pedalled influence on behalf of the very entity that many conservatives regard as having been responsible for the housing bubble. As a pol, he supported No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, and an individual mandate for health care at the national level that is now regarded on the right as tyrannical. Given all that, South Carolinians supporting his candidacy as a "screw you" to insufficiently conservative Washington "thought leaders" are either stupid or misinformed.

A protest candidate cannot embody the very object of voter ire.

That brings me to my theory of Gingrich. I tend toward the explanation that is marginally more charitable to the GOP rank-and-file in South Carolina, and less charitable to the conservative media elites and "thought leaders" who refuse to acknowledge that they occupy an opinion-making, culture-shaping role. Of course a base that gets much of its information from Fox News has a higher-than-justified opinion of Gingrich, a contributor to the cable-news network until he launched his presidential bid. Of course folks who get much of their information from talk radio are inclined to assess the conservatism of public figures based on fiery rhetoric more than the substance of their record: haven't they been trained to do so by charismatic hosts who daily exalt in zinging liberals and demonizing leftists as if it is the most important metric of a trustworthy ally?

As a Rush Limbaugh caller put it:

What I really want, Rush, for our side is to have somebody in the Oval Office who is gonna be a street fighter for us, not the class president; and that's why I have a problem with Romney in addition to not being sure of how conservative he really is. He has all the right answers, he has all the politics down, but does he really understand how angry and upset -- as you have so well articulated over the last couple of years, how mad -- we really are and how much we've yearned for action to turn this ship of state around?"
Hasn't much of the conservative media gone uncritically along with Gingrich's self-portrayal as a man of ideas? Surely more could have been done to point out what Ross Douthat has put most bluntly:

"I am at a loss to identify the 'big ideas' and 'big solutions' that he is supposedly campaigning on. Yes, he has an implausible supply-side tax plan, but you never hear him talk about it. He has technically signed on to some form of entitlement reform, but you never hear him talk about that, either. Instead, so far as I can tell, his 'idea-oriented' campaign consists almost entirely of promising to hold Lincoln-Douglas-style debates with President Obama, grandstanding about media bias and moderator stupidity, defending his history of ideological flexibility much more smoothly than Mitt Romney, and then occasionally throwing out a wonky-sounding notion (like, say, outsourcing E-Verify to American Express) that's more glib than genuinely significant."

People bear responsibility for the media they consume. Voters ultimately own the politicians they elevate. But if you're wondering to which "thought leaders" his rise can be attributed, best to ask, "Whose approach to politics produces, as its logical conclusion, a candidacy like Gingrich 2012?" Surveying the centrality of attacks on the mainstream media, the casting of President Obama as a radical other, and the trick where you shrewdly repeat a racially provocative line, get accused of racism, and cast yourself as an aggrieved victim for political advantage, Gingrich '12 is modeled after the successful tactics of movement conservatism's demagogues. Is there any candidate in memory whose persona so closely resembles an egomaniacal talk-radio host? The rank-and-file in South Carolina accept a would-be president behaving that way because they're used to their "thought leaders" talking like that. They aren't in on the reality that a lot of what they hear on talk radio resembles performance art; they don't presume that the rhetoric and arguments employed daily on Fox News are often contrived or disingenuous. 

What a political movement gets when it spends years marshaling more demagoguery than sound arguments against its opponents, what it gets when its intellectuals are deposed by its entertainers, what it gets when Roger Ailes and Rush Limbaugh are its agenda-setting personalities; what it gets when all these factors and more prevail, is a Newt Gingrich victory in South Carolina, where the voters, having been trained to elevate emotion and style over substance, didn't even realize that they've chosen as their champion a man who is neither conservative nor capable of leading anyone.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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