This fall’s longest running political drama, the Republican Party’s unending search for a credible presidential candidate who is not former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, entered a bizarre new phase in the past two weeks. Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House whose campaign was last newsworthy when most of his major staffers quit in June, has become a serious contender for the nomination, reaching frontrunner status in a recent average of influential polls. While the GOP’s search for an anti-Romney has taken it in some unusual directions already, the fact that it has now led primary voters to take seriously a man whose campaign once released an official statement that described him as “[emerging] out of the billowing smoke…of tweets and trivia” makes both their desperation and the futility of their task especially clear. Gingrich’s rise therefore provides a good occasion to ask exactly why Republicans so deeply want something they can’t have. The answer to this question illuminates some important features of the party’s current condition.
To understand why the GOP wants an anti-Romney, we need first to figure out just what primary voters think is wrong with him. The main difference between Romney and Gingrich (as well as his other challengers) seems to lie in the combativeness of their rhetoric. While all the candidates have been quite critical of President Obama, Romney has generally tempered his attacks by acknowledging that Obama is a decent man who is simply overwhelmed by the demands of the presidency and focused on concrete and specific administration failures, such as the weak economy. Gingrich, in contrast, subtitled a recent book “Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine,” and other candidates have also opted to portray the president not merely as someone whose policies they disagree with but as a figure with a comprehensive plan to fundamentally change the country for the worse.
Why is stridency, rather than competence or electability, so important to Republican primary voters and activists? The answer likely lies, in large part, with the recent rise to prominence within the party of a form of small government purism that has always been influential but has rarely commanded the widespread support among important constituencies that it now does. Those who subscribe to this brand of conservatism posit that state power is only morally legitimate when it is used to protect individuals’ rights against coercion and fraud—it thus implies that the only appropriate roles for government are national defense, policing, and the enforcement of contracts. People who think this way will obviously place great value on extreme rhetoric, since they see not just the Obama administration’s signature policies but much of what the federal government has done for the past several decades as violations of fundamental moral constraints on state power—a candidate who is not combative signals to them that he or she does not fully grasp what is at stake.
However, this explanation of Republicans’ desire for an anti-Romney also makes clear that they will never be able to satisfy it. This is because a candidate who sees the modern state as fundamentally illegitimate will be utterly unable to speak to the concerns that voters outside the party’s base actually have. Most Americans, regardless of political affiliation, think that government does have some role in providing basic services like health care and cushioning citizens against economic shocks, even if they differ about the best way for it to perform that role. This is especially true in a period of persistently high unemployment caused by a financial crisis that many blame on poor regulation. The major GOP donors and party elites who stand to benefit in concrete ways from electoral victory understand this, so the only candidate who has received the consistent support from them needed to run an effective campaign is one who combines gestures of support for small government with an acknowledgment that the modern state is here to stay.
Many on the right might be inclined to balk at this column’s conclusion, since it seems to imply that they should abandon the truth in order to pursue electoral success. They will likely point (justifiably) to Romney’s infamous vacillation and lack of any clear policy goals as evidence that such an approach is futile. However, there are many ways to further the basic conservative goals of promoting individual initiative and constraining state power without lapsing into utopian purism. Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, who has introduced important elements of market competition and choice to his state’s schools and Medicaid program while still affirming that the government has a legitimate role to play in providing these services, offers a powerful example of how to do so. Unfortunately, Daniels and other innovators within the GOP declined to seek its presidential nomination, so primary voters instead face an unenviable choice between opportunism and extremism which has made them desperate enough to consider even Newt Gingrich.
Ajay Ravichandran is a fourth-year in the College majoring in philosophy.