There’s an awkward silence in Washington. The storyline was supposed to have already been written: likable, electable, presidential Mitt Romney would dethrone Obama and restore our future. The GOP base was onboard. The White House was already drawing up battle plans against the Massachusetts governor. Each side was ready to “take back America,” as if someone had stolen it.
But as the candidates vowed to pursue their own visions of America, the definition of that America became increasingly unclear. More importantly, the GOP slipped further into a crisis of identity. Remember when Michele Bachmann was a serious contender? Herman Cain? Donald Trump? The party was blindly flailing about, desperately searching for a more galvanizing leader. Granted, most of the anti-Romney hopefuls have been little more than brief curiosities or occasional spectacles, but the inability of the Republican base to solidify behind a single candidate may have greater implications.
Just look at the last three primaries: three different winners and several vastly different debates, even when it seemed as if Mitt Romney would have a straight shot to the nomination. Are the candidates more evenly matched than previously thought? Or are voters just more divided than ever before?
The latter seems more likely. Many Americans may not know what they want, but almost all of them know what they don’t want. Whether it’s the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, or a single undecided voter, Americans are fed up with the status quo and will turn to almost anyone for a change.
But where have they turned? GOP frontrunners have ranged from the absurd to the mundane, from the extreme to the uninspiring, from the comical to the infuriating, and everything in between.
The only quality they all have in common: they’re not Obama.
Voters have flirted with some of the long-shot candidates, but when it comes down to choosing a GOP nominee, the most important factor under consideration is “electability,” a legitimate chance to defeat America’s incumbent. For the GOP, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as Obama loses. Just ask Senator Mitch McConnell, who has made ousting Obama the top priority of his party.
Until recently, Mitt Romney was the answer. He had the money, the connections, the strong Republican base and, most importantly, the best shot at winning. He was the default “not Obama” candidate. But even as Mitt surged to prominence, the search for a “not Romney” candidate began. It soon became clear that the GOP had lost its solidarity, and that Romney’s road to the nomination was not fully paved. Just last week, in the South Carolina primary, a whopping 45% of all voters said that the ability to defeat Obama was the most important quality in a candidate. Of those voters, less than four out of every ten voted for Romney, while a full 50% chose Gingrich.
Newt Gingrich? More “electable” than Mitt Romney?
To some, it’s a terrifying proposition. To others, it’s simply untrue. It all depends who you ask. Ask the average South Carolina voter, and polls suggest that debate performance was a key factor in making a decision. Ask anyone who has seen the recent debates, and they’ll tell you why Gingrich won South Carolina.
Newt said all the right things in all the right ways. He nailed every one-liner, shot down every criticism, and told the voters exactly what they wanted to hear:
“[Barack Obama] is...the most dangerous president of our lifetime.”
The crowd would go wild on more than one occasion that night, and Gingrich would quickly establish himself as the big ideas, anti-Washington crusader – exactly the Romney alternative the GOP had been looking for.
But a closer look at the recent debates reveals a candidate very different from the Newt Gingrich of old. From South Carolina to Florida, he slammed the elite media for prying into his alleged “open marriage,” he took credit for four consecutive balanced budgets from 1998 to 2001, and he generally bemoaned the untrustworthy nature of Washington. It was more than enough to incite the raucous crowds, turning the Republican primary into America’s newest spectator sport.
Of course, the first rule of politics is to never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Gingrich was the House Speaker from January 1995 until January 1999, and he contributed a great deal to balancing the 1998 and 1999 budgets. How he can claim credit for the budgets that followed his departure, however, is anyone’s guess. Gingrich also loves drawing connections between his tenure as Speaker and the prosperity of the ‘90s, but when he cites the budget surplus of the Clinton years, he neglects to mention that he opposed a 1993 tax increase that provided the revenue necessary to generate that surplus.
Perhaps he got his facts wrong, or perhaps the “elite media” is simply too nitpicky. Either way, the real concern should be Newt’s mixed message. He has expressed an overall disdain for Washington while simultaneously touting his extensive experience there. It is no doubt politically savvy to appeal to the voters’ distrust of government, but it boggles the mind to think that those same voters would turn to Gingrich, one of Washington’s most deeply rooted political figures.
Mitt Romney agrees, and his recent loss of momentum has inspired him to go on the attack, something he has tried to avoid for as long as possible. In South Carolina, Romney told voters that Gingrich’s extensive involvement in Washington is “a perfect example of why we need to send to Washington someone who has not lived in Washington, but someone who's lived in the real streets of America.”
Of course, it soon became evident through Romney’s tax returns that he has almost nothing in common with the “real streets,” and his campaign has lost enough steam to actually let Gingrich back into the running. A second consecutive defeat in Florida would only throw the race into further uncertainty. Granted, with Florida’s vast media market and a much different voter constituency, Mitt may very well be able to outspend Newt’s momentum. But politics are anything but certain right now.
It’s a testament to the fact that the country is more complicated and diverse than ever.
But will changing the man in the Oval Office – especially considering the current alternatives – really change Washington? Some would like to think so. Others see the problem as something bigger, something that cannot be solved by any amount of grandstanding or fundraising. Ironically, Newt Gingrich probably said it best in the Charleston debate:
“If you’ve watched Washington and you’re not skeptical, you haven’t learned anything.”