South Carolina Republicans delivered what former president George W. Bush once called a “thumpin’” to Mitt Romney. Republicans have too many misgivings about Romney — misgivings we share — to give him a shortcut to the nomination. He will have to earn it, if he can. So far he has been content to deliver lifeless platitudes, apparently under the impression that saying he “believes in America” is the way to clinch an argument rather than begin or summarize one. Instead of projecting strength, he has wilted under challenge. For a while there, his position on releasing tax returns was starting to look as convoluted as the tax code itself. He has done little to persuade conservative voters that he will fight for our priorities.
But attention must now turn to South Carolina’s big winner, Newt Gingrich. If the question before South Carolinians was whether to declare the nomination contest over by choosing Romney, the question before Floridians is whether to make Gingrich the front-runner. Romney is now running a sharply negative campaign in order to capitalize on this distinction. Since neither Gingrich nor Romney can make the case that he is a purebred conservative or a world-beating political talent, both are now essentially relying on a negative argument: The other guy is unreliable and unelectable. There is enough truth in both indictments to explain the continued appeal of other candidates’ joining the race.
Among the present candidates, we continue to prefer Romney and Rick Santorum over Gingrich and Ron Paul. Our opposition to Paul is based on our disagreement with a foreign policy based on what we consider a dangerously naïve and narrow conception of U.S. interests. Our opposition to Gingrich, by contrast, is not based on any philosophical disagreement. Among Gingrich, Romney, and Santorum, we find only minor ideological differences. None has been a consistent small-government conservative in office; all are running on conservative, and similar, platforms this year.
Thus it seems to us that the key question is which candidate can best make that platform a reality by first beating Obama and then governing successfully. Exit polls suggest that South Carolina Republicans considered Gingrich the most electable candidate. He argues that he would make the strongest Republican nominee because he would be able to beat Obama in debates — a claim that his strong performance in the Republican debates so far reinforces.
Gingrich’s best moments in the debates have come when he has hammered the press for liberalism and triviality. Republicans have responded positively, in part because they think, as we do, that the mainstream media has had too much influence over the Republican nomination contest because of all of these media-sponsored debates. The general election will be very different. It is unlikely that the debates will be as numerous or will matter as much; they rarely do.
The public at large dislikes the media too, but not with the same intensity that conservatives do: Gingrich as nominee would have to train his fire on Obama, who will be able to fight back as John King could not. Nor will the public at large be as impressed by Gingrich’s willingness to attack Obama as a clueless radical as Republicans are. (If voters decide in 2012 to reward the most slashing or sardonic debater before them with the presidency, it will be a first.) When Republicans found themselves in tight spots during the Reagan presidency, they waited for their leader to give a speech to show them the way forward and rally the troops. When Gingrich was Speaker, Republicans never sought him to intervene in legislative debates to turn the tide.
There is much more to general elections than debates, and there is much more to the presidency than giving speeches. On an intellectual level Gingrich knows this, but he has little experience either in contesting elections with large numbers of voters of varying views or in running large organizations. Romney has executive experience, unlike Gingrich or Santorum, and in past elections voters have seemed to value that experience. But at least Santorum, like Romney, has been elected to statewide office before, and like Romney has shown himself able to reach beyond the Republican base in doing so. Santorum’s record in this regard beats Romney’s, since Santorum won statewide in Pennsylvania twice. Only Gingrich has never been elected to office from anything larger than a congressional district; only Gingrich has never had to reach beyond the Republican base vote to win an election.
Gingrich has been a nationally known figure for a long time: when the economy was booming and when it has been in a slump; when Republicans were on top and when the public disliked them; when the national mood was sunny and when it was sour. Amid all the tumult of the last 18 years there has been this constant: Gingrich has never been popular. Polls have never shown more than 43 percent of the public viewing him favorably at any point in his career. Gingrich backers say that he is inspiring. What he mostly seems to inspire is opposition.
It should go without saying that Gingrich also offers more material than the other candidates for Democrats to drive his numbers in the wrong direction. Any Republican nominee will draw criticism for being too biased toward the rich. Not every Republican nominee will be attacked for cruelty in his personal life.
None of these candidates can be guaranteed to beat Obama (or run a successful White House), and under the right circumstances any of them could. For Republicans to choose Gingrich, though, would be a gamble, with everything from the Supreme Court to Obamacare to our nation’s alliances riding on the outcome.