By Frank Rich Published Dec 26, 2011
Even those who loathe Karl Rove’s every word may be hard-pressed to dispute his pre-Christmas summation of the Republican circus so far: “the most unpredictable, rapidly shifting, and often downright inexplicable primary race I’ve ever witnessed.” And all this, as he adds, before a single vote has been cast. The amazing GOP race has also been indisputably entertaining, spawning a new television genre, the debate as reality show. Installment No. 12, broadcast by ABC in the prime-time ghetto of a Saturday night in early December, drew more viewers (7.6 million) than that week’s episode of The Biggest Loser. It’s escapist fun for the entire family (Hispanic and gay families excluded). Or it would be were it not for the possibility that one of the contestants could end up as president of the United States.
Rove does have one thing wrong, however. His party’s primary contest, while unpredictable, is not inexplicable. It is entirely explicable. The old Republican elites simply prefer to be in denial about what the explanation is. You can’t blame them. To parse this spectacle is to face the prospect that, for all the GOP’s triumphal declarations that Barack Obama is doomed to a one-term presidency, the winner of the Republican nomination may not reclaim the White House after all.
In the standard analysis of the race, which the embattled GOP Establishment is eager to believe, the rapid ascent and implosion of each wacky presidential contender is seen mainly as a passing judgment on Mitt Romney, the android who just can’t close the deal and improve his unyielding 25 percent average in polls of the Republican electorate. The Old Guard professes to have no worries. That steady 25 percent has been good enough to induce much of the press to portray Romney as the “presumed” (if not the “commanding”) front-runner ever since Beltway handicappers like Mark Halperin of Time and Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post labeled him as such early in 2010. One day or another Romney will surely make good on that bet. He has money, organization, and the looks of a president (or perhaps an audio-animatronic facsimile of one). Eventually primary voters will exhaust all conceivable alternatives and accept that no Chris Christie will descend from the heavens as a deus ex machina. Then they will come home to the 25 percent leader of the pack, because that’s what well-mannered Republicans always do. Add to this scenario the GOP conviction that much of the electorate shares its judgment that Obama is an abject failure—he’s “an incumbent nobody likes,” as Peggy Noonan framed it—and the presidency must be in the bag.
But this narrative is built on a patently illogical assumption: that a 25 percent minority is the trunk wagging the Republican elephant. What makes anyone seriously assume that the 75 percent will accommodate itself to that etiolated 25 percent rather than force the reverse? That lopsided majority of the GOP is so angry at the status quo that it has been driven to embrace, however fleetingly, some of the most manifestly unqualified, not to mention flakiest, presidential contenders in American history. The 75 percent is determined to take a walk on the wild side. This is less about rejecting Mitt—who’s just too bland a figure to inspire much extreme emotion con or pro—than it is about fervently wanting something else. While the 75 percent has been splintered among the non-Romney candidates, it is largely unified in its passionate convictions. Just because Trump and Cain have folded their tents doesn’t mean those convictions have fled with them, or that financial underwriters like David Koch (a major Cain enthusiast) have closed their checkbooks.
The 75 percent’s passions are hot because their GOP is a party of revolution. This underlying reality has tended to be lost in the brisk play-by-play narration of the primary-season horse race. While a recent Pew poll shows a decline in support for the tea party, that quaint brand, sullied by its early association with birthers and doofuses in Colonial Williamsburg costumes, was certain to fade and become superfluous once tea-partyers colonized the Republican Party. That takeover has long since been consummated. At the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., Romney won its influential presidential straw poll three years in a row until Ron Paul ended that streak in 2010, then beat him again this year. Both times Paul’s victories were dismissed by the GOP Establishment (CPAC’s organizers included) as aberrations—fleeting coups staged by hustling young cadres of fringe maniacs. But Paul’s triumphs were no aberration; he was a bellwether of the right’s new revolution. His zeal to dismantle Washington is now mainstream for the firebrand 75 percent. These days a Republican candidate who wants to send multiple departments of the federal government to the guillotine only risks a backlash when he can’t remember the condemned agencies’ names. Romney, a moderate reformer who emphasizes eliminating programs, not departments, is such an outlier next to this wrecking crew that he could be in the Obama Cabinet.
The GOP is even undergoing a cultural revolution to match its ideological reboot. A party that has spent much of the past three decades pandering to the religious right remains adamantly opposed to reproductive rights for women and equal rights for gays. But now it routinely rationalizes and even embraces the same licentious sexual culture it once opposed with incessant anti-indecency crusades. Extramarital behavior that Republicans decried as an apocalyptic stain on the national moral fabric in the Clinton era is the new normal on the right. Just look at Iowa, long an epicenter of the family-values brigade, and the plight of Rick Santorum, a hard-line proselytizer for every religious-right cause and an ostentatious promoter of his own religious orthodoxy and procreative prowess. He has not had one even near-winning week in state polls in 2011 despite campaigning in all 99 counties among what would seem to be his natural constituency. The thrice-married philanderer Newt Gingrich, despite little presence in Iowa and an even smaller campaign outlay than Santorum’s there, effortlessly surged to the top, however transitorily, beating his nearest competitor (Paul) by nearly a two-to-one margin among white Evangelical Christians in an early December Times–CBS News poll of likely Republican caucusgoers.
While the fierce anti-government absolutism of the 75 percent is the renewal of a creed that dates back to the Goldwater era, the cultural revolution is a recent phenomenon. Sarah Palin was the pioneer. Her ascent to the McCain ticket was almost immediately followed by the revelation of the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of her daughter Bristol. Enthralled with Bristol’s grizzly mama, the party instantly forgave the transgression, which the younger Palin would shamelessly turn into a multimedia show-business career, replete with an ungainly stint on Dancing With the Stars. (Another klutz and lapsed GOP moral scold, Tom DeLay, had preceded her onto that dance floor.) The messiness of the Palins’ domestic arrangements, later merchandised by the family’s own reality series, was applauded, not condemned, by their fan base. “She is beautiful, well spoken, and a sinner, but aren’t we all?” was Sean Hannity’s take on Bristol. Had she or her mother or perhaps even Levi Johnston had a “wardrobe malfunction” on-camera tantamount to Janet Jackson’s notorious Super Bowl misadventure, chances are the 75 percent would have ridiculed any public condemnations as a humorless overreach by insufferably p.c. liberals. It’s impossible to imagine the new GOP majority following the right’s previous template of demanding that the Federal Communications Commission punish any offending network.
This relaxed moral flexibility has been highly visible as Trump, Cain, and Gingrich have enjoyed their star turns in the Republican field this year. Once-powerful family-values hucksters like Tony Perkins and Gary Bauer have tiptoed around candidates’ marital pratfalls rather than rail against them; Hannity took the easy way out with Cain by refusing to believe his multiple accusers even as they threatened to reach a total of 999. After Cain dropped out, The Wall Street Journal editorial page didn’t fault him for his apparent misbehavior, only for his campaign’s “inept” efforts at crisis management. Gingrich’s infidelities have also been largely forgiven once he figured out he could retrofit them into a Christian redemption narrative and wrap them in the flag. (He confessed that his affairs were “partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country.”) The recent Times–CBS News poll found that while only 8 percent of Iowa’s white Evangelical Republicans cited Gingrich as the candidate who best shares their values, they still rated him as their top presidential choice.
Among those same voters, Romney (ranked fifth for president, behind Michele Bachmann) fared even worse on the values question—at 7 percent. Even allowing for the hits Romney takes with some Evangelical Christians for being a Mormon, that poor showing is astonishingly low for a candidate who is fond of boasting, especially since Newt’s reemergence, that he has been married to the same woman for 42 years. What Mitt doesn’t understand is that Gingrich’s personal life, like the Palins’, looks more like America than his does in the day of Modern Family. He doesn’t realize that parading his own picture-perfect, intact, shrink-wrapped domestic bliss carries a whiff of condescension and privilege, perhaps even more so than Callista Gingrich’s brandishing baubles from Tiffany. In a country riven by class war, the resentments are not only about money. Ann Romney’s smug campaign-trail mantra—“No other success can compensate for failure in the home”—is as tone-deaf as Mitt’s observation that “corporations are people.”
ike Romney, almost every Republican gatekeeper was startled when Gingrich, long given up for dead, improbably staged at least a brief resurrection. The list of those who lined up against him is almost epic in its length and breadth: Rove and Noonan, of course, but also National Review editorialists, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Savage, Kathleen Parker, Alan Simpson, David Brooks, Joe Scarborough, Tom Coburn, and Peter King, not to mention Republican campaign hands like Alex Castellanos and Mike Murphy, and even Glenn Beck. Many of them have expressed a similar (if less histrionic) disdain for most of the other non-Romneys as they’ve cycled through—Paul, Palin, Bachmann, Trump, Cain. The gulf between the party’s Establishment and its troops could not be more stark.
Along with Rush Limbaugh, the most conspicuous conservatives missing from the list of Gingrich haters are Rupert Murdoch, who knows how to cover his bets, and most of his current stars. It was on The Wall Street Journal op-ed page that the Newt surge was anticipated in early November by Dorothy Rabinowitz of the paper’s editorial board, in a prescient piece titled “How Gingrich Could Win.” Her fellow board members, both in print and on their own Fox News program, have tended to be supportive of Newt (his $1.6 million take from Freddie Mac aside) and contemptuous of Mitt. Further empirical evidence of this tilt could be found in the airtime Roger Ailes bestows on Republican contenders. In a December 20 Media Matters accounting of the minutes Fox devoted to each candidate since June 1, Gingrich came in second to Cain, with Romney finishing behind Bachmann, Paul, and Santorum in this unofficial Fox primary. In Mitt’s most newsworthy appearance on the network, all it took was straightforward questioning about his record by the affable anchor Bret Baier to melt him down into a puddle of patrician prissiness.
That Gingrich could soar in popularity for even a nanosecond among the 75 percent and particularly its Fox core would seem, to put it mildly, counterintuitive. He is a far more extravagant flip-flopper than Romney, and, like Romney, has in the past endorsed radioactive elements of “Obamacare.” He is nearly a careerlong creature of Washington and its K Street gravy train. He has espoused the same (mildly) soft line on illegal immigration that was supposed to have destroyed Rick Perry. The Teflon that allowed Gingrich to deflect all these demerits—until an avalanche of attack ads threatened to bury him in Iowa—is surely not his public personality, an amalgam of preening egomania and snide superiority that borders on the transgressively hostile. And heaven knows his saving grace is not his perennially self-advertised genius as a “historian.” He is a scholar only if compared with Bill O’Reilly, whose current best seller, Killing Lincoln, is replete with references to the Oval Office even though the Oval Office wasn’t built until 1909.
No, what endears Gingrich to the 75 percent is the one big thing that matters: He is the only candidate who has been the leader of an actual Republican revolution, even if it went down in flames within a year. He walked the walk beyond even Ron Paul’s dreams, shutting down the entire federal government. And he has talked the talk as well, with a grandiosity beyond the wildest imagination of anti-Obama tea-partyers waving DON’T TREAD ON ME signs. Back in his 1994–95 heyday, Gingrich positioned himself as the leader of “a rising populist majority” taking down the last defenders of “the old order.” He saw his mission as to advance “the cause of freedom,” and he portrayed a government shutdown as nothing less than “the heart of the revolution.” In 2012, such Newtonian rhetoric from the “Contract With America” era could be dusted off and recycled with only minor updating (e.g., more anti-Obama slurs like his claim that the president exhibits “Kenyan anti-colonial behavior”).
The animosity of the Republican elites only empowers Gingrich, much as it did Palin and Cain; the Old Guard is the right enemy (along with Democrats and the news media) to have. The contrast that Mitt draws between himself and Newt also plays into Gingrich’s hands. “I’m not a bomb thrower, figuratively or literally,” Romney is fond of saying; he instead offers “sobriety” (figuratively and literally, as it happens). That’s a loser in the 75 percent marketplace, where bomb throwers, at least figurative ones, are the rage. If these are “crazy and extraordinary times,” wrote Jonah Goldberg, one conservative pundit who did not shut the door on Newt, “then perhaps they call for a crazy, extraordinary—very high-risk, very high-reward—figure like Mr. Gingrich.”
The leaders of the 25 percent just hope this mood will go away, after Newt presumably goes the way of all the other non-Mitts. David Brooks has written that the GOP working class (his language) will come to its senses and embrace Romney “when people actually start to think seriously.” The pro-Mitt Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review asserts that his party is “increasingly resigned” to Romney as if he were the nutritious political equivalent of spinach. The sole prominent national conservative whose enthusiasm for Romney extends beyond damning him with faint praise is Dan Quayle. The only real reason, one imagines, that any of the Establishment supports Romney is that he’s an incredibly useful front man. He puts a milquetoast mask of garden-variety old-school conservatism on a revolutionary party that would scare the hell out of moderates if one of its rank and file’s favored non-Mitts were leading the charge. This “electability” argument explains why a former Romney skeptic like Ann Coulter reversed herself and (halfheartedly) endorsed him.
The panicked GOP Establishment, belatedly closing its ranks to hasten Romney’s coronation, could well get its wish. Gingrich’s capacity for self-immolation is infinite, and the only non-Romney left who could make trouble is Paul. Either way, the 25-75 split has been a lucky break for Obama. Though the White House has made a great show of saying that it regards Romney as its toughest potential opponent, that stance has always seemed disingenuous. In a time of economic woe, it’s a gift to run against a chilly venture-capital tycoon who, in Mike Huckabee’s undying characterization from the 2008 GOP primary campaign, looks like “the guy who laid you off.” If a candidate can attract only a quarter of his own party after essentially four years of campaigning, where is the groundswell going to come from next November? The thinness of that 25 percent is dramatized by the Real Clear Politics compilation of polls of Republican contenders and voters: Of 59 surveys taken since the Perry boomlet of August, Romney has only placed first in 20. A bomb-throwing non-Mitt, by contrast, would energize the 75 percent majority that whipped Mitt the other 39 times—particularly the activists who might otherwise be tempted to sit on their hands on Election Day. But fielding a radical ticket would come at the price of energizing any Democrats who also are thinking of staying home in 2012.
Given its potentially lose-lose alternatives, some GOP elites are still hoping for a last-minute savior to be drafted at a brokered convention. But that’s a pipe dream—if not procedurally, then substantively. Even if any of the missing candidates were to reverse course and run, it’s hard to picture the 75 percent embracing them. Chris Christie is relatively moderate on guns, immigration, and climate change. Mitch Daniels has called for a “truce” on social issues. Paul Ryan’s Draconian plan for a Medicare overhaul was so unpopular with voters that even many in the Republican congressional caucus had second thoughts about it. (Nor has any sitting member of the House been elected to the presidency since James Garfield in 1880.) Jeb Bush’s very name is political poison—and he’s a moderate on both immigration and tax hikes besides. In the end, the most powerful Obama opponent remains the same it has always been—the economy.
Whoever ends up on the GOP ticket or in the White House, the 75 percent is no sooner going to disappear than the aggrieved 99 percenters in the blue populist camp. What Republican aristocrats in denial like Karl Rove can’t bring themselves to recognize is that “the most unpredictable, rapidly shifting, and often downright inexplicable primary race” they’ve ever seen is not just a conservative revolution but one that has them in its sights.