This is the most volatile and tumultuous presidential primary race of our lifetimes. Look at these numbers. In June 2011, in South Carolina, Mitt Romney led Newt Gingrich by 15 points, 27% to 12%, in a Public Policy Polling survey. Two months later, PPP had Rick Perry leading Mr. Romney by 20 points, 36% to 16%, with Mr. Gingrich running third. In early December Mr. Gingrich vaulted to the top, leading Mr. Romney by 23 points (CNN). A month later Mr. Romney led by 18.
Last Saturday, South Carolina voted. Mr. Gingrich won in a 12-point blowout.
Jump to Florida. In late November, Mr. Gingrich led Mr. Romney by 30 points. (PPP). In mid-January, Mr. Romney led by 26 points (Sunshine State News). A week later Mr. Gingrich was back on top by nine (Rasmussen). This Thursday Rasmussen said Romney was leading Gingrich by eight, 39% to 32%.
This isn’t “different polls say different things,” this is tumult, and it’s left almost everyone in politics scratching their heads: What the heck is going on? An unusually high number of voters have reported making up their minds late, just before the voting. Never before have three different candidates won the first three races in a GOP nomination contest.
We are in uncharted territory.
What it appears we are seeing is a new iteration of the age-old split between the grassroots and a perceived GOP establishment. It is like split between the Goldwater forces and the Eastern Rockefeller wing of the party in the 1960s. It is an update of the split between the Buchanan brigades and the establishment in 1992. It is the old True Conservative versus Ambivalent Accomodationist split.
Thursday’s debate: Romney had a better night than Gingrich.
Actually it’s more a wound than a split, and the only one who healed it in our time was Ronald Reagan. He did it in three ways. He did it by being definitive: We believe in this and this, not that. He healed it by winning: Two landslides told everyone in the party who’d resisted him what time it was. And he healed it by governing well: By 1989, everyone who’d fought him within the party had to look at the results of what he’d done—the comeback of the U.S. economy, the fall of the Berlin Wall—and admit that it worked.
The healing lasted roughly a quarter-century, until the second Bush administration, when everything began to come apart again. The GOP was now a party split on spending, immigration, a dozen other issues. It was rocked even more than it knew by the crash of 2008, and further sundered.
The question now is whether the old split, the old wound, is tearing open in a deeper and more definitive way, in the first real presidential contest since the great healing went fully by the boards.
The issue of Ronald Reagan himself, in the Florida primary, has been a sideshow and mildly absurd. Newt says he is Reagan’s successor, that he helped him rout the Soviet Union and create 16 million jobs. The Romney forces say Newt attacked Reagan, called him a failure, he’s nothing like the Gipper.
Newt is not Reagan, Mitt is not Reagan, and, by the way, President Obama isn’t Truman. People are themselves. They live in the era they live in.
One way Newt is unlike Reagan is that Reagan was a constructive figure, not destructive. If Newt is the donkey who knocked down the barn, Reagan’s the guy who’d build it. He wasn’t driven by need, and anger wasn’t his fuel. He was equable, even-tempered, personally content. Martin Anderson always said Ronald Reagan didn’t need high office to feel good, Ronald Reagan dated Lana Turner. He already thought he was quite a fella.
As for the history, Newt was new to Washington and had been in Congress two years, a back-bencher, when Reagan was sworn in. He had almost nothing to do with Reagan’s achievements. He was a politician looking for attention. He talked a lot, took to the floor a lot, and was sometimes impressive. He was excited by C-Span: It showed America he was there. Usually he said things that were supportive of conservative aims, sometimes not; sometimes he lauded Reagan, sometimes not. Henry Hyde summed up the bopping of Newt’s brain with a uniquely conservative putdown: “Him and his new ideas—there are no new ideas!”
Mr. Gingrich in the 1980s was hungry and ambitious, and no one had prepared the way for him, which is actually his firmest claim on outsiderness: he was no fortunate son. He was on his own, self-invented; he made the mistakes young men make when no wise, sophisticated hand is available to guide them.
It was after Reagan left that Mr. Gingrich became a leader, spearheading the insurgency that resulted in the 1994 Republican takeover of the House. It was a breathtaking achievement. It was what inspired Nancy Reagan’s statement that her husband’s torch was passed to him. But he could not govern, could not build the barn, and was ousted four years later.
During those years he concluded the growth area within the party was a critique of Reaganism from the right, and sometimes the left. So that’s where he was. By the mid-2000s, when Reagans dominance as an iconic GOP figure was fully established, Mr. Gingrich was aligning himself with him fully and enthusiastically, in films and books. He is an entrepreneur; it was where the business was.
Mr. Gingrich does not disdain Reagan and surely never did. He says he loves him and he probably does, in the way that people come to love what they need to love. They come up with reasons!
But the point is Newt senses the lay of the land. If a new and modern strain of Rockefeller Republicanism looked like it was about to take hold, he’d see the virtues in that. Right now the growth area looks like it’s in opposition to elites and establishments. So that’s where he is.
To Thursday night’s debate, the 19th of the primary year.
First, Rick Santorum’s mother for president—93 years old and she sprang from her seat beaming like the sun when her son called out her name.
It was a good night for Mr. Romney. He seemed stronger, more in command than in the recent past, polished. Actually he looked tall again. It was OK for Mr. Gingrich, no great moments—they’re almost expected of him now, especially when the audience is allowed to applaud—but fine. He seemed sluggish and off his game the first 45 minutes, but sort of caught up.
Mr. Santorum had a great night, scoring points on health care and South America, and giving a silent thumbs up to answer a time-wasting question. Ron Paul had three good lines. On his health records, he warned Wolf Blitzer: “There are laws against age discrimination.” On whether we should return to the moon: “Maybe we should send the politicians to space.” On the battle of the blind trusts he gave voice to the thoughts of a grateful nation: “That subject really doesn’t interest me a whole lot.”
Mr. Gingrich decried “the Romney attack machine.” Mr. Romney more or less let it go, which was wise since he’s got quite an attack machine there.
One senses Mr. Romney stabilized his situation. But who knows? The first big sound at the debate came from the audience. At first it sounded like boos, but it wasn’t, it was a chant. “Newt, Newt, Newt!”