In GOP Debate, Romney Wins the Clash of the Unreliable Conservatives

He and Newt Gingrich, the two least ideological candidates on stage, are vying to emphasize one another's heresies.

heretics square off.jpg

On the Florida debate stage Monday, there were four Republican candidates: the most fiscally conservative, Ron Paul; the most socially conservative, Rick Santorum; and the two frontrunners, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, who insist that they're more conservative than one another.

Strange that a job requiring as diverse a skill-set as the presidency begins in a vetting process focused on ideology, especially since frontrunners are never ideologically consistent. But it is imperative that they fake it. Republican voters, who like the connotation of "conservative," say it's a quality they prefer; revealed preference suggests what they actually want is an inconsistent right-leaning opportunist (George W. Bush, John McCain) who helps them evade certain kinds of cognitive dissonance (like hating deficit-financed government health care in theory and loving the budget-busting Medicare prescription-drug expansions in practice).

Mitt Romney helps his supporters to feel as though they're principled conservatives, even as they support a Massachusetts moderate, by muddying the distinction between the political and the personal. Romney's biography driven campaign is meant to say, "Of course I'm conservative! Can't you see that I made all this money in private enterprise, built a fortune thanks to my ascent in a fair meritocracy, stayed married to my wife all these years, had all these kids, and find the entrepreneur in me earnestly pained by President Obama's incompetence?"  

For Newt Gingrich, the narrative meant to obscure his personal and political failings goes like this: "I'm one of you, and you can't deny our tribal connection. I fought for us in the 1990s against Bill Clinton. I believed we were a rightful majority before anyone. I have even more contempt for the media than you do. Others may say Obama is incompetent; I'll be damned if political correctness will stop me from explaining that he's a Kenyan anti-colonialist, and if liberals think that's racist it only proves that they're the real bigots."

Neither man's narrative is inaccurate in its particulars.

Romney really is a wildly successful businessman with a traditional family life. And Gingrich is indeed a right-wing culture warrior. In attacking one another, maximum damage is done by focusing on specific heresies against ideology, so that it becomes harder and harder for a voter to support either man and still think of himself as a principled conservative. For example, the individual mandate is now widely denounced on the right as unconservative, and hearing that Romney and Gingrich supported it is enough to cost them some votes.

The cognitive dissonance is too much for some.

On Monday, Mitt Romney won the night by articulating, more effectively than ever before, his opponent's least defensible ideological heresy: influence-peddling on behalf of special interests, and thereby profiting off their attempts to increase the size, scope and power of the federal government. What follows is a transcript of this most important exchange of the night, when moderator Brian Williams wisely got out of the way:

MODERATOR: Speaker Gingrich, just tonight, two hours ago, in fact, you released your '06 contract with Freddie Mac. We alluded to this earlier. Your company was paid $25,000 a month, $300,000 for the year. But it didn't provide a further explanation of services for Freddie Mac. Why one year's worth? Governor Romney today used the expression "work product." He wants to see your work product, and the word "lobbying" has been thrown around, and you strongly disagree with that.

NEWT GINGRICH: Well, first of all, if you read the contract -- and we can go back and check the other years. We had to work through the process of getting an approval because it was a confidentiality agreement. But if you read the contract which we have posted, and the Center for Health Transformation had to get permission to post, it says very clearly supposed to do consulting work. The governor did consulting work for years. I have never suggested his consulting work was lobbying. So let me start right there. There is no place in the contract that provides for lobbying. I have never done any lobbying.

Congressman J.C. Watts, who for seven years was the head of the Freddie Mac Watch Committee, said flatly he has never been approached by me. The fact is that Congressman Rick Lazio, who is chairman of the Housing Subcommittee, said he has never been approached by me. And the only report in the newspaper was "The New York Times" in July of 2008, which said I told the House Republicans they should vote no, not give Freddie Mac any money, because it needed to be reformed. So there's no --

MODERATOR: So you never peddled influence, as Governor Romney accused you of tonight?

NEWT GINGRICH: You know, there is a point in the process where it gets unnecessarily personal and nasty. And that's sad. The fact is I have had a very long career of trying to represent the people of Georgia and, as Speaker, the people of the United States. I think it's pretty clear to say that I have never, ever gone and done any lobbying. In fact, we brought in an expert on lobbying law and trained all of our staff. And that expert is prepared to testify that he was brought in to say here is the bright line between what you can do as a citizen and what you do as a lobbyist. And we consistently, for 12 years, running four small businesses, stayed away from lobbying, precisely because I thought this kind of defamatory and factually false charge would be made.

If you missed Gingrich's unwittingly damning admission, here it is: the former House speaker was engaged in behavior so much like lobbying that he had to hire an expert on lobbying law to avoid meeting the legal definition. That's going to be emphasized by his critics in coming days, even if passed too quickly for the audience to notice.

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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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