Monday, January 23, 2012

What is the Point?

In my experience, working on a political campaign is a uniquely draining activity. The canvassing, the phonebanking, the information sessions, the registration drives. It all adds up to an untold number of volunteer hours, not to mention how taxing the itself work can be. During a campaign, the rationale that keeps me motivated and invested in the work is that there are real tangible policy outcomes that I would prefer. My contribution to getting a bill passed or an candidate elected helps government realize those personally preferred policies. I work to get more liberal candidates elected into office because I wish to realize more liberal policy outcomes overall. In converse, conservatives work to get more conservative candidates elected to help realized more conservative policy outcomes. This is an important distinction that I do not think enough commentators, much less voters, make.

I bring this up because I am genuinely confused by the Newt Gingrich surge/ascendency to “front-runner” status. In that same vein, I'm also befuddled by the recurrent suggestions from various liberals I've talked with about how Obama “should be primaried”. I find these opinions related in the sense that I think that the people who hold these views both have a fundamentally different understanding (and I would argue misunderstanding) of what politics is supposed to produce.

First, Newt Gingrich beat Mitt Romney in the South Carolina primary by a significant margin (12%), and the current polling in Florida doesn't brighten the picture that much for the former Massachusetts Governor. Erick Erickson and Byron York have both written similar sounding reactions to Gingrich's victory. York found two former Huntsman supporters who have thrown their weight behind Gingrich instead of Romney.
Why? Even after four years of trying, Campbell can't quite accept Romney's changes of position on abortion and other issues. But beyond that, Campbell explained, there was something about Romney that he, like a lot of other South Carolinians, just couldn't live with. "[Voters] can't quite get that comfort level with him," Campbell said. “They don't really know quite where he really is coming from. It's an intangible." (emphasis mine – JMG)
Erickson is a little more strident with his assessment, stating that
People are mad as hell they are about to be stuck with another boring, moderate, uninspiring choice that has at best a 50/50 shot at losing to the worst president since Carter. They are flocking to Newt not because they think he’s a great guy, but because right now, he’s the only one fighting for conservatism and GOP voters are looking for a vessel to channel their anger with Obama and their complete disappointment with the GOP establishment which is now embodied perfectly by Romney. (emphasis mine – JMG)
As far as I can tell, much of the conservative reaction against Romney is grounded in voters need for their preferred candidate to emotionally embody their own anger and frustration. Newt Gingrich's pugnacity certainly fits the mold, as Erickson put it, of being a “vessel to channel [voters] anger,” especially against Romney's alleged passivity or “inauthenticity.”

Note, however, that neither York, nor Erickson however, found the space in their columns to mention Gingrich's broader ability to attract non-conservative base voters in the General Election. Talking Points Memo has conveniently just reported that “Gingrich’s favorability among general election voters — the metric that many pollsters argue is the key to understanding how the public feels about a candidate — is not high.” Specifically,
Newt’s favorability numbers have again plunged — his unfavorablity score hit 58 in a CNN poll, 56 in a Fox News survey, and 60 in Public Policy Polling (D) data.
Gingrich's toxicity has not been totally ignored, but many partisan conservative writers and commentators that are boosting for the former Speaker of the House certainly seem interested in omitting this reality. Erickson, in fact, claims that “[Republican primary voters] want a conservative fighter because most conservatives look back at Ford, Reagan, Bush, Dole, Bush, and McCain and see only the ones taking a conservative path against the Democrats actually winning,” giving the implicit assumption that Gingrich is the “conservative fighter” that primary voters have been waiting for who can claim victory against Barack Obama, on the strength of his “true conservative” bonafides.*

Furthermore, CNN's South Carolina exit poll shows that among voters who said that “defeating Obama” was their most important quality, 51% of them voted for Gingrich. Now, I do not doubt that a majority of Republican primary voters of South Carolina genuinely believe that Newt Gingrich is their preferred choice for the party's nomination, but I think this shows us that the Republican primary voters of South Carolina probably have a skewed understanding of the candidate qualities necessary to win a General Election, especially against an incumbent President.

My question out of all of this; what is the point of getting a nominee elected to compete for the office of the Presidency? As I said above, there is a certain point were the rubber of political rhetoric has to meet the road of policy outcomes. Conservatives are working to elect a Republican candidate for the presidency, not a spokesmen who channels their anger. I just do not understand the point of expending all the effort the primary and general election campaigns require if your core goal is not realizing a government and policy regime that's more in line with your ideal preferences.

I do see how Newt Gingrich channels the frustration of conservative consistences, I do not see how an a man with a 60% unfavorablity rating serves the long-term goal of winning the highest national office and overseeing an enactment of the conservative agenda.

*This is the “true Scotsman” fallacy that is deliciously self-perpetuating, and is the most flagrant crutch of ideologues. If Gingrich (or Romney, or Santorum) wins the nomination and loses the general, Erickson and his hyper-partisan ilk will start writing about how Gingrich (or Romney, or Santorum) was not “sufficiently conservative enough,” and how in 2016, the Republicans will take back the Oval Office only if the party nominates whomever fulfills their preconceived litmus test of what a “conservative” is supposed to be.


  1. I honestly think what voters are suspicious about when it comes to Mitt is that he was the governor of Massachusetts. And maybe, just maybe, they remember his previous, more liberal positions, and can't trust him. While that might be a good thing, 1. it's bad that they can't put that into words and have to rely on a vague feeling, and 2. Like you've mentioned, Gingrich has less possibility of beating Obama, so viewing it from that angle it makes less sense. Not to mention Gingrich is a blatant hypocrite. What's worse, changing your positions to satisfy the electorate, or holding on to your positions even as you yourself behave differently? I'm slightly more disgusted by the latter.

  2. All great points. My biggest issue with Romney is that, with the position he is in, he has real opportunities to confront conservative voters on issues he's championed here in MA (specifically healthcare). The fact that he not only elects to pander in such a naked way, but that he panders with the full knowledge and a very good understanding of how healthcare policy can have a positive effect on individuals (like myself).

    As for your comments on Gingrich's blatant hypocrisy, I can't help but find it to be a feature, not a bug, of the current Republican Party.