By Nick DAngelo
In 1964, in the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, President Lyndon Johnson seemed unstoppable. Campaigning on an aggressive policy in Vietnam and equally strong social reforms at home, Johnson was able to leach off of the popularity of his late predecessor. Republicans for their part remained bitterly divided between the more moderate—and in many ways more electable—Nelson Rockefeller of New York and the conservative ideologue Barry Goldwater of Arizona. Conservatives, while itching to win a presidential election, were more interested in making a stand, enthusiastically rallying behind a man who had been labeled, albeit incorrectly, as a warmonger and a racist.
It seems as if the Republican electorate may once again choose strict ideology over probable electoral chances by throwing support behind Newt Gingrich and abandoning presumptive front-runner Mitt Romney.
It was not a good week for Romney. After lagging in polls heading into the primary, two shaky debate performances and the Iowa GOP officially declaring Rick Santorum the caucus winner, Saturday was the pinnacle of his worst week to date. To say that Saturday night was a bloodbath may be an understatement. The Public Policy Poll released late on Primary Eve had Gingrich up by nine percentage points. Saturday night’s results were Gingrich 40 percent and Romney 27 percent, a double-digit win that far surpasses Romney’s own mega-victory in New Hampshire one week ago. Romney may not know it yet, but he’s undergoing a near death experience.
The primary surprise leaves Romney regrouping, along with every person paying attention to this election. We should look at some real questions about a Gingrich nomination.
Gingrich is no Barry Goldwater. For one thing, Goldwater was married to the same woman, Peggy, for over fifty years. But Gingrich’s victory speech last night was closer in line with Goldwater conservatism than Reagan republicanism, a remark Gingrich himself would probably shy away from. Gingrich focused on the obvious topics of jobs and economic growth, but also spoke passionately about state’s rights, the Washington bureaucracy and balancing the federal budget.
A limited federal government is vintage Goldwater—the vote he regretted most in his life, his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Amendment, was cast because of his reservations about an expansive federal government.
We will “return powers to the states, to local governments. To get it out of Washington, D.C.,” Gingrich said. “I’m the only speaker in your lifetime to produce four balanced budgets.” Limiting federal spending was also a Goldwater passion, and while Reagan shared Goldwater’s belief in limiting the size and scope of government, he was the president who raised the national debt 189 percent.
Another fundamental Goldwater trait is Gingrich’s straightforward, blunt speaking. In 1968, campaigning on behalf of Richard Nixon, Goldwater stated about the Democratic nominee: “[he] talks so fast that listening to him is like trying to read Playboy magazine with your wife turning the pages.” On Saturday evening, political commentator and former-presidential advisor David Gergen said that Gingrich has a “better chance of reaching blue-collar voters than Romney—he speaks in a vernacular.” That passionate realism is something Republicans have always embraced, and it’s safe to say that they will most likely prefer that to a phony northeasterner, like Romney.
What may be most similar between these two presidential aspirants is that both were disliked by the Republican establishment. During his campaign, Goldwater faced criticism for being too extreme. Later during his career in the U.S. Senate, he was banished from the movement he helped create because of his views on abortion and gay rights. Always a stringent believer in limited government, he believed that those social issues were personal decisions where the government had no right intervening. While Gingrich hasn’t embraced this sect of traditional conservatism, he stands in a similar position within the establishment.
The next great fight will be in Florida on Jan. 31. As with every race so far, we move to the next primary seeking some closure. South Carolina could have been Romney’s final clash with the far right, as it was for McCain in 2008. But that wing is as ready as ever to make a stand now.
While Florida is a moderate state in many respects where Romney has been heavily invested, it’s unclear how South Carolina may alter the climate. In 2010, Republican primary voters chose Tea Party activists over establishment favorites for governor and U.S. senator, and both Rick Scott and Marco Rubio went on to win those respective seats. There could be another burst of conservatism next week.
The lesson for Romney is what he’s known all along: he needs to stop being plastic and become engaged. While many may despise Gingrich’s personality, positions, or a combination of the two, no one can doubt his oratorical ability. His gifted one-liners—“I’ll use knowledge, he can use a teleprompter…because if you had to defend Obamacare, wouldn’t you want a teleprompter?”— are what draw conservatives. In 1964, the porcelain Rockefeller was so booed at the Convention that he was unable to finish his speech, leading Goldwater to utter the famous conservative manifesto: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
South Carolina has fundamentally altered the 2012 Republican campaign. 2012 has been anything but predictable and may be the most interesting Republican primary.