He says, and his defenders say, that time, reflection, and religious conversion have conquered his dark side. If he is the nominee, a campaign that should be about whether the country will continue on the path to social democracy would inevitably become to a large extent a referendum on Gingrich instead. And there is reason to doubt that he has changed. Each week we see the same traits that weakened Republicans from 1995 through 1998: I’d vote for Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform; Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform is radical right-wing social engineering; I apologize for saying that, and no one should quote what I said because I was wrong; actually, what I said was right all along but nobody understood me. I helped defeat Communism; anyone who made money in the ’80s and ’90s owes me; I’m like Reagan and Thatcher. Local community boards should decide what to do with illegal immigrants. Freddie Mac paid me all that money to tell them how stupid they were. Enough. Gingrich has always said he wants to transform the country. He appears unable to transform, or even govern, himself. He should be an adviser to the Republican party, but not again its head.
Gingrich is not the only candidate whom we believe conservatives should, regretfully, exclude from consideration for the presidency. Governor Perry has done an exemplary job in Texas but has seemed curiously and persistently unable to bring gravity to the national stage. Republican presidential candidates have not been known for their off-the-cuff eloquence in recent decades, but conservatism should not choose a standard-bearer who would have to spend much of his time untying his own tongue. Representative Bachmann’s rise early in the primary season reflected the public’s hunger for sincere conviction; her later descent, following among other things her casual repetition of false anti-vaccine rumors, its desire that conviction be married to judgment. Representative Paul’s recent re-dabbling in vile conspiracy theories about September 11 are a reminder that the excesses of the movement he leads are actually its essence.
Three other candidates deserve serious consideration. Governor Huntsman has a solid record, notwithstanding his sometimes glib foreign-policy pronouncements; his main weakness is his apparent inability, so far, to forge a connection with conservative voters outside Utah. Governor Romney won our endorsement last time, in part because some of the other leading candidates were openly hostile to important elements of conservatism. He is highly intelligent and disciplined, and he takes conservative positions on all the key issues. We still think he would make a fine president, but time and ceaseless effort have not yet overcome conservative voters’ skepticism about the liberal aspects of his record and his managerial disposition. Senator Santorum was an effective legislator. He deserves credit for highlighting, more than any other candidate, the need for public policies that topple barriers to middle-class aspirations. Weighing against him is a lack of executive experience.
As Republican primary voters consider their choices, they should ask themselves several questions: Which candidate is most likely to make the race turn on the large questions before the country, and not his personal idiosyncrasies? Which candidate is most likely to defeat Obama? Who could, if elected, form an effective partnership with Republican leaders and governors to achieve the conservative agenda? We will render further judgments in the weeks to come as the candidates continue to make their cases and are, just perhaps, joined by new candidates. At the moment we think it important to urge Republicans to have the good sense to reject a hasty marriage to Gingrich, which would risk dissolving in acrimony.