What an odd pair of front runners Republicans appear to have ended up with. Not the usual conservative vs. moderate pairing, but two quite unusual political figures with remarkably similar policy and political profiles but remarkably different temperaments and dispositions.
Let me say first: I used to work for Newt Gingrich. In the last year of his speakership, I was a “staff assistant” in his congressional office. I was 21 when I started there. No offense to anyone reading this who is now a staff assistant on the Hill, but that’s a very junior job—or at least it certainly was in my case: some policy research, some note-taking in meetings, some answering of phones, and the like. I didn’t spend all that much time with Gingrich (when I did, he was always very nice to me and to other junior staffers), and I don’t pretend to have learned much about him that you wouldn’t have learned from just following politics. So I offer my views as an observer of politics, not as any kind of expert on Gingrich.
What stands out about Romney and Gingrich, to me, is that they have in common a very unusual profile for a Republican politician. Both of them are fundamentally moderates: Very wonky Rockefeller Republicans who moved to the right over time as their party moved right and maybe as events persuaded them to move right, and they both still very much exhibit the technocratic countenance of the Rockefeller Republican—a program for every problem. Conservative humility about human nature and about the potential of technical solutions is not readily discernible in either one.
They’re also essentially in the same place politically—I can’t think of a single major issue on which Gingrich is more conservative than Romney, and with the possible exception of immigration (and perhaps Medicare reform, as I mention here, though it’s hard to be sure) I can’t think of one where Romney is more conservative. Substantively, their views are largely indistinguishable from one another. They’re part of a very broad consensus on policy among Republicans this year, which is one of the underreported stories of the year and is frankly in many ways a testament to Paul Ryan, who really defined the Republican agenda with his budget. The House Republican budget caused both Romney and Gingrich to take significantly more conservative positions on entitlement reform in particular than either one would otherwise have taken.
Moreover, both of them have moved back and forth on the same key issues in recent years—on health care, on climate, on immigration, on the social issues including the life issues; and these are obviously some of the most important issues to Republican voters. So the question of flip-flops, or the question of reliability, hangs heavy over both of them.
And yet, similar as they are, you don’t naturally think of them as belonging in the same category, because they have very different temperaments, and temperament can often matter even more than substance. Romney has a thoroughly executive disposition: He appears to have a very organized mind, intense discipline, a general sense of calm and restraint, and a systematic approach to everything he does. He expects change to result from a process, and so thinks about politics in terms of process. He exhibits each of these qualities to a fault—and as a result he can often seem rather cold, and his past flip-flops can seem even more unprincipled.
Gingrich has what you might call a revolutionary disposition: He has great intensity and energy. His mind is drawn to stark and diametrical distinctions; he expects change to occur through cataclysmic clashes and so seems always to be seeking after ways to accelerate the contradictions. This allows him to much more easily thunder over his own inconsistencies and past changes of mind. But he has no discipline whatsoever, can be almost unbelievably erratic and unfocused, and is unironically conceited.
I think Gingrich has the intensity and the understanding of the importance of the moment that many Republican voters are looking for—he radiates a sense that the choice before us is utterly crucial and decisive (even if one sometimes gets the impression that he would radiate the same sense when asked to choose between paper and plastic), and with regard to the coming election a lot of Republicans share that sense. I certainly do. He also of course has a record in high office that includes some impressive accomplishments during his speakership—welfare reform, the balanced budget—though also some very costly failures that seemed to flow from deficiencies in his temperament or his style of management.
And that’s where I think Romney has some advantages. The presidency is an executive position—for all the political elements of the job, which are obviously very important, the presidency is fundamentally a matter of making decisions and seeing to it that they are carried out: A president has to be a decisive, focused, prudent, disciplined person, who knows what he wants and how to use the power he has to achieve it. Romney’s record on that front is very impressive.
Mental and organizational discipline is also very important in a candidate, not just in a president, and it certainly seems like Romney is better positioned to run a focused and effective campaign. Gingrich is likely to run a much more frenetic campaign—remember, that story about his senior team resigning in a huff and accusing him of lacking focus is not from fifteen years ago, it happened in June of this year. Frenetic campaigns tend to turn voters off, as John McCain learned in the fall of 2008, and I think it’s important for Republicans to understand that this fall they must appeal to independent voters with a terrible case of buyer’s remorse about Obama: Those people don’t think they voted for a socialist revolutionary last time, they think they voted for a charismatic politician who turned out to be much more liberal and much less competent than they bargained for. They are ready for someone else, but they want to be sure he is up to the job.
In a sense, then, the choice before Republican voters is a choice of two temperaments. And they must ask themselves not only which best speaks to their mood, but also which is likely to best serve the right in a general election and to best serve the country in the White House. The policy agenda of a President Romney and a President Gingrich would likely be very similar—especially if a Republican congress is elected with him. But whether that agenda or the next chapter of the Obama agenda is what we must contend with in 2013 will depend on whether Republican voters discern just how substantively similar their two leading candidates are, and just how temperamentally different they are.