Sunday, December 11, 2011

Perplexed by Gingrich

Do the people know best?

Or does the elite possess such superior wisdom that its judgment ought to prevail over the will of the electorate?

Should we trust the verdict of markets or rely on those brilliant minds who know more about Newt Gingrich than the rest of us?

Today, establishment Republicans are seriously perplexed over the seemingly inexorable rise of Gingrich. They have made clear that he is not their guy. They have acted like the opposition research team of the Obama campaign, flinging all manner of mud at the former House Speaker.

As of now, precious little of it is sticking. Is Gingrich coated in Teflon? Or is he, as Peter Wehner wrote, in description that deserves to be immortalized, like an: … amoeba … surrounded by a zone of darkness that is a negative energy force in which everything works in reverse.”?

More prosaically, it may be that Republican voters are fed up with the elites and are seriously offended by people who would presume to tell them how to vote.

Or perhaps the Republican voters think that our current crisis is so dire that they want a president who is going to be a bull in the China shop. They might want a candidate who is going to be tough enough to break a few dishes. They might want someone who is going to challenge the conventional wisdom.

What if the situation requires a leader, not a competent manager? Surely, Gingrich is a risky choice, but maybe voters are willing to take the risk.

When a competent manager like Mitt Romney brings no experience in national government to the job, how capable do you think he will be effecting radical structural change? Maybe it's not such a bad thing to be a "career politician."

It may be that all the bad qualities pundits are attributing to Gingrich are qualities that Republican voters consider to be positives.

Besides, there is one other reason why the charges against Gingrich are not sticking. His behavior and his demeanor have not confirmed the validity of the attacks against him.

If the pundits say that Gingrich is emotionally unstable, and Gingrich remains nonplussed in the debates, then his opponents are the ones who look like they are too emotional. The more Gingrich looks jovial, the more his critics look irascible.

Gingrich has excelled in the debates, not on the basis of clever quips but because he shows that he commands his brief. He is the best informed and gives the most substantive answers. He is not necessarily the most eloquent, but he gives the most thoughtful, least prepackaged, answers.

To which Ross Douthat responds that Republicans want to see Gingrich debate Obama because they are suffering from a revenge fantasy.

I think it’s risky to indulge in dime-store psychoanalysis, and I think that Douthat, an excellent columnist, has fallen into a trap. For the record, when you demeans someone’s judgment by impugning his motives you are indulging in a cheap psychoanalysis.

If we care about Republicans’ state of mind, I believe that they do not want to be embarrassed by their candidate. It is a noble intention. It explains why they are not going to take a risk nominating Rick Perry. One can grasp the point without imagining unconscious revenge fantasies.

Here is Douthat’s analysis: “Conservatives may want catharsis, but the rest of the public seems to mainly want reassurance. They already know Barack Obama isn’t the messiah he was once cracked up to be. What they don’t know is whether they can trust anyone else to do better.”

I’m not sure how catharsis got in there. The classical sense of catharsis has nothing to do with revenge. Reread Aristotle’s Poetics if you don’t believe me.

But, is it true that the public wants reassurance? If so, reassurance about what? Does the public want someone who can manage or someone who can take command?

If the public wants someone who has the political strengths to effect a major sea change in the way government is run, then it is looking for someone who can crack a few heads and discomfit the comfortable.

This is not the same thing as looking for a reassuring presence.

For my part I am not reassured when Douthat declares that Republicans who favor Gingrich are being motivated by less than rational and less honorable impulses.

In his words: “But Newt Gingrich’s recent rise in the polls is being sustained, in part, by a right-wing version of exactly the impulse that led Democrats to nominate Kerry: a desperate desire to somehow beat Barack Obama at his own game, and to explode what conservatives consider the great fantasy of the 2008 campaign — the conceit that Obama possessed an unmatched brilliance and an unprecedented eloquence.”

Of course, one might retort that Mitt Romney’s support is sustained by a desperate desire to find a candidate who is so moderate that he is guaranteed to beat Obama.

Douthat continues: “And so ever since the 2008 election, the right has embraced a sweeping counternarrative, in which the president’s eloquence is a myth and his brilliance a pure invention. Take away his campaign razzle-dazzle and his media cheering section, this argument goes, and what remains is a droning pedant, out of his depth and tongue-tied without a teleprompter.”

Between us, life is not a narrative. Politics isn’t either.

We agree that right thinking people were quicker to see that Obama was an empty suit, a man whose vaunted brilliance was a sham created by the media.

According to Douthat, sending up a candidate who can make Obama look like he is in over his head is like beating a dead horse. Oh, really? 

In his words: “More important for the Republican Party’s purposes, it isn’t 2008 anymore, and conservatives don’t actually need to explode the fantasy of Obama’s eloquence and omnicompetence. The harsh reality of governing has already done that for them. Nobody awaits the president’s speeches with panting anticipation these days, or expects him to slay his opponents with the power of his intellect. Obamamania peaked with the inauguration, and it’s been ebbing ever since.”

Douthat quotes Quin Hillyer to the effect that elections no long hinge on dramatic rhetorical confrontations. I am not sure that they ever did, but I don’t think that that is the issue either.

It feels like a good idea to ask why Gingrich has excelled in the candidate debates. It’s not so much his oratorical eloquence: debating is not the same thing as preaching.

Gingrich does well in debates because he commands his brief. Of the candidates he knows more about the way the federal government functions. He has a better grasp of policy and history. He has the courage to offer new policy proposals, even if they run counter to the conventional wisdom.

Who would you prefer to see in the White House: a president who does not understand policy or a candidate who does?

Candidates who are deeply knowledgeable are more impressive, and even more reassuring than those who seem to come to it all prepackaged. A good manager might well command his brief, but Mitt Romney has no experience with the federal government. How is he going to implement policy when he is learning on the job.

What if Republican voters do not want to send up someone who has less government experience than Barack Obama?

The Republican electorate might be right. It might be wrong. We should not disparage its motives. For all any of us know the people see things more clearly than the elites.


Robert Pearson said...

So Douthat thinks that "Abraham Lincoln lost the Illinois Senate race to Stephen Douglas." Really?

As I sure Ross knows, U.S. Senators were elected by the state legislatures then (would that they were again!). In the 1858 elections for the Illinois state legislture, Republicans narrowly missed a majority and thus, Douglas was elected to the Senate.

To say that Lincoln lost a "race" is misleading, at best. But it would dilute Douthat's point to explain these complexities. The vastly increased importance of the debates in the Republican primary season says to me that debates will indeed have a larger impact in 2012 than other recent presidential elections. If I were Obama's advisor I'd advocate he agree to few of them, whether Gingrich or Romney is the opponent.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

While we're fact-checking Ross, we should also mention that the 1960 debate was extremely important... and I agree with you that this year's debate will have a great impact.

Now, if only the Republicans, candidates and pundits, would stop trying to destroy each other.