Last night, my dad told me about a recent interaction with Newt Gingrich during a campaign stop in Beaufort, South Carolina. My dad said he told Gingrich, “I really like your position on immigration.”
Gingrich smiled and replied, “You should, because it’s the right one.”
It is classic Newt Gingrich, and it crystallizes a bit of his appeal to a big chunk of the Republican base.
The election of George W. Bush in 2000 brought “compassionate conservatism” and eight years of a president who was quick to try to find areas of cooperation with Sen. Edward Kennedy in areas like education. He was followed by Sen. John McCain and his “maverick” credentials, cheered on by the press, who adored his campaign-finance law with Russ Feingold and his criticism of Bush on interrogation methods.
Many conservative Republicans are tired of standard-bearers who seem apologetic about their stances. They’re tired of having to reargue the inevitable failures of statist policies, the benefits of free-market economics, the long-term benefits and wisdom of traditional values, the need to respond to threats decisively, and the need for a strong America playing the key role of leadership on the world stage. They want a candidate who will metaphorically grab the inattentive, poorly informed, emotional swing voter by the lapels and say, “Look, whenever our policies are tried, they work; the opposition’s policies crash and burn time and again and all we’re left with is a big bill and a sense that government’s intentions were good. Stop indulging them and embrace what works!”
In the GOP field, the candidate who seems to have confidence seeping out of every pore is Newt. Almost every Gingrich response to every question carries the subtext, “The evidence to support the wisdom and benefits of my idea is so overwhelming and irrefutable that I can scarcely believe that we need to have this discussion, but I will lay it out for you slowly and clearly so that even the dullest-witted person within earshot can grasp the futility and madness of any other course.”
There’s a catch to this style, of course. To those inattentive, poorly informed, emotional swing voters, Gingrich can come across as not merely confident but wildly overconfident in his own ideas and leadership, as well as his arrogance and ego.
Of course, this also explains a portion of conservative Republicans’ reluctance about Mitt Romney. If Newt bristles with overconfidence, the pandering, position shifts, and rhetorical caution of Romney suggests a lack of confidence; many conservatives conclude that the former Massachusetts governor is terrified of telling a primary voter what he doesn’t want to hear. Even when Romney touts a conservative policy, he gets little credit from some GOP primary voters, since they think it’s just another insincere sales pitch. More often than not, Romney emphasizes that he wants to study an issue more or consult with others before declaring a definitive intent, which can be wise in many circumstances but often sounds like a “maybe, so don’t conclude that I disagree with you” hedge on the campaign trail.
In the eyes of the GOP base, their November opponent is perhaps even more confident than Gingrich (in his own mind, he’s already among the top four presidents!) and has won because of his steadfast faith in the transformative power of liberalism. Of course, conservatives are not liberals, and what works for one side is not necessarily what will work for the other. It is not clear that the Republican nominee in 2012 can win by emulating Obama’s style.