Just when it seemed the presidential campaign could not become odder, it has. If, as I wrote last week here, Mitt is an improbable savior for America, Newt Agonistes is an apparition that the mothers of America could use to frighten their children into eating their breakfast cereal. As the inventor last month (I doubt if anyone else would claim or even admit to it) of the Hegelian Newt — who would not win the nomination but could prevent Mitt from closing the deal and enable the Republican convention to draft their party’s best and strongest candidate — and as one who almost conceded last week, after looking at Mitt’s big lead in the South Carolina polls, that the anti-non-Mitt assassination squads had riddled Newt beyond recovery, so that he could not perform his Hegelian mission of being the supreme non-Mitt, I bow low indeed to the resurrected Newt.
Even if it’s only a flash in the pan, this is a comeback of Nixonian, if not Lazarene, proportions. Never mind that the attacks on Mitt’s business career were outrageous, or that Newt’s moral indignation over the criticism of some of his own whoppers by other candidates and the media was over the top, and that this level of internecine backbiting can only help the Democrats. Newt Gingrich’s perseverance in relaunching his campaign, which had been left for dead by almost everyone, is a Homeric achievement, and he capped it with a stirring presidential address on Saturday night.
If turning a 20-point deficit in the South Carolina polls to a 14-point lead on primary day two weeks later is remarkable, it also illustrates the extreme vulnerability of the Romney lead. On January 17, just four days before the primary, the Wall Street Journal’s perceptive Kimberley Strassel wrote a major opinion piece under the headline “Romney’s Rivals Fizzle in South Carolina.” But Romney’s subsequent setback wasn’t the result of a terrible gaffe like Edmund Muskie’s tearful performance in New Hampshire in 1972, or George Romney’s claim to have been “brainwashed” in Saigon in the 1968 campaign.
Despite the mighty efforts of conventional Republican professionals to give the front-runner the traditional benefit of his status — legitimize him and fluff up the cushions under him and make him appear unstoppable — the Romney campaign has clay feet and a glass jaw.
Having heaped on Newt the honors due the imperishable underdog, and due a legendary figure of the nation’s recent political history, the Republican party cannot seriously consider nominating him for president. If it is now endorsing Newt’s animosity to the sort of sophisticated financial enterprise that Romney successfully ran, then that party no longer has a raison d’être.
The problem with the Republicans’ dalliance with the neo-Poujadist populists in the Tea Party is that serious canvasses of these groups reveal that most of them are reactionaries. They all want to soak the rich, expel the undocumented immigrants, take the birch to the ungrateful and demonstrative youth, and slam the cash drawer on the idle, especially those of another pigmentation. This isn’t all bad, but it isn’t a solution, and almost none of the Tea Partiers are prepared to make any sacrifice or give up any benefit or tax exoneration themselves, such as cuts to Social Security or Medicare, including prescription-drug coverage. (The Tea Party is well analyzed in Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson’s The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.) The country’s fear, anger, and general unease is spread around scores of millions of people who want others to pay for making their lives better.
No one in either party is giving the “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech the condition of the country demands, though Santorum and non-candidate Paul Ryan hint at it. And there is no evidence that the Republicans buy into Newt’s shtick, including his masquerade as a Reagan Republican, any more than they do Mitt’s frequent, poll-driven conversions to policy changes, most recently tax simplification. It is inconceivable that 41% of Republicans, even in South Carolina, really want Newt as president, but they have rewarded his eloquence and doughtiness by making him the instrument of their underwhelmed reticence about Mitt. Hegel rides again, one more time: From an indecisive confrontation of the unacceptable, a candidate may be drafted who stands unequivocally on a Republican platform that pledges tax simplification, entitlement reform, increases of domestic oil and natural-gas production, the stimulation of value-added employment such as manufacturing, and the prevention of a nuclear-armed Iran. The Republicans could lead America away from the squandering of its income and borrowings on fungible pleasures and the proliferation of redundant services, such as the legal industry, which is now an onerous surtax on American life.
The continuing declared Republican contenders are now down to the improbable quadrangle of Mitt, Newt, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul. Paul does fairly well with his hard-currency and libertarian arguments, and is effective in debunking the compulsive regulators and legislators, who are the permanent majority of those who try to inflict themselves on the country as candidates. But his attempt to revive pre-war isolationism of the school that preparedness is a provocation and that attempts to prevent strategic areas overseas from falling into the hands of mortal enemies raises the prospects of war is dangerous nonsense. It is one thing to roast George W. for his blunders in Iraq; something else to revive the Charles Lindbergh fable that foreign tyrants are no threat to America. Paul is finally fading; as gadfly campaigns go, his are no style-setters. Bill Buckley’s run for mayor of New York in 1965 is generally reckoned the best of the type. It is inexorable: Ron Paul is no Bill Buckley.
The Republican field contains one more potential surprise. Rick Santorum is clear and cogent in proposing a lower tax rate on manufacturing and on the activities of the person who is “making things, as opposed to a lawyer” (as he said to the Wall Street Journal on January 14). He proposes tax assistance to expanding families, reinforcing the family and helping avoid the over-aging that besets Europe and Japan, and will soon beset China. And he favors the Ryan Plan, with an earlier rollback on advanced Social Security retirements and means-testing for benefits. It is a sober policy, fearlessly put forward, that addresses the deficit, economic growth, unproductive employment, and social disintegration. He is a very strenuous Roman Catholic, but that is now (a considerable evolution in 50 years) a religion that satisfies the militant Christians without much frightening any more the raving secularists. Americans are comfortable with Rome — not altogether so with the Mormons — and nearly 30% of Americans espouse that faith, with vastly varying degrees of fervor.
Santorum polled 17% in South Carolina; it is not quite too late for him. But it may be too late for the media assassination squads to riddle him if he catches fire now. They laid down only light ack-ack fire after he trailed Romney by just eight votes in Iowa, and then shifted fire to Mitt, thinking they had killed off all the non-Mitts (the Times started the barrage with complaints about Mitt’s tax rate, a traditional cup of hemlock confected by the liberal media for such occasions).
I am grateful to Michael Kinsley for presenting in the New York Review of Books two weeks ago the argument for reelecting President Obama, since I was unable to think of one myself: “health care reform, tough new financial protection for consumers,” guiding “the economy through its roughest period in eighty years with moderate success (who could have done better?),” ending “our long war in Iraq,” and avenging “the worst insult to our sovereignty since Pearl Harbor.” Obama is, said Kinsley, “a president who faced an opposition of really spectacular intransigence and downright meanness.”
So this is the argument: a catastrophe in health care, a lot of intrusive window dressing for consumers, $5 trillion of deficits to hold the increase in unemployment to about 5 million, a lengthy and pre-planned departure from Iraq that many (not including myself) see as a scuttle, and the admitted tedium of dealing with the congressional Republicans after the bracing depelosification of the midterm elections. The only element of it that isn’t simply rubbish is killing bin Laden, for which the president certainly deserves credit.
Against the holder of such a record, Romney, Santorum, Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, possibly Chris Christie, and — despite his youth — Paul Ryan could win, and should win. I wish formally to take up the challenge offered by the peppy Gail Collins of the New York Times, referred to here last week: Is this president up to Millard Fillmore’s level? I don’t think so. Fillmore was instrumental in the adoption of the Compromise of 1850, which was hard on fugitive slaves and started the Civil War on the installment plan with squatter-sovereignty referendums in each territory applying for statehood. But it deferred the Civil War for a few years, enabling the North to have Abraham Lincoln, and eventually Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman, to fight it to victory. Fillmore was a secondary player in saving the Union and emancipating the slaves, and he sent the Perry mission to Japan, which opened the ports of that country, almost as important in its time as Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972.
Michael Kinsley’s recitation of Obama’s “achievements” is less impressive, partisan moonshine though it is. The Democrats will not have a more accomplished nominee than Millard Fillmore this year. But the Republicans almost certainly will.
A version of this column first appeared at the National Review.