Politics & Policy

Mitt and Newt in Florida

This time it means something.

Jacksonville, Fla. – If you want to know who’s going to win the Florida primary, give me a call Saturday afternoon. I’ll be glad to tell you then. I could tell you now, of course, but then I’d just be blowing smoke along with the rest of the media. This race will break late and break hard — later and harder, possibly, than even the South Carolina primary did.

What I can tell you today is what this election is going to be about. The 2012 Florida primary will be an old-fashioned family feud pitting conservatives against Republicans. It’s a feud with deep, 1964-vintage roots, but it’s not about old grudges misremembered or long-forgotten. Next Tuesday’s vote will be a referendum on what happened here and elsewhere around the nation in 2010.

In that bountiful year, you’ll fondly recall, disgruntled conservatives leapt from the soft shoulders, grabbed the wheel of the party’s wandering bus, and whipped it hard right. The party people were at first outraged — you’ve just cost us the services of Mike Castle, for God’s sake! — before developing a sober (and ephemeral) gratitude for the infusion of conservative energy. Almost immediately following Election Day, however, the systematic restoration of party prerogative began. Messrs. John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, who had seemed to be tea-party when tea-party was cool, banked their revolutionary fires; Karl Rove, for a time doubted and (even more painfully) ignored, was reinstated to his architectural role; and the party people quickly selected their candidate for 2012. To avoid any intramural frottage, in fact, they helpfully declared their candidate “inevitable” before a single delegate had been won. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome your Inevitable GOP Candidate: a formerly pro-choice, anti-gun, pro-amnesty, pro-individual-mandate, one-term governor of Massachusetts who has stashed part of his unimaginably large paper-shuffling profits — the part that he didn’t stash with Goldman Sachs — in a bank in the Cayman Islands. Who, I ask you, could possibly be more inevitable than he?

It is difficult to convey to NR readers, much less to New York Times readers, just how astonished and annoyed the grassroots activists in Florida are. These are not people who hold party posts or are on Larry Sabato’s Rolodex as potential sources. They are the people who dropped what they were doing in 2010 and dashed off to the aid of their party in its hour of manifest need. They restored order to the public square, imposed clarity on the party message, sent a human wave of self-declared reformers to Tallahassee and Washington, and then said, with a sigh of relief, “There. You guys can take it from here. We’re going home.” To then watch their new heroes acquiesce in the selection (appointment?) of Mitt Romney as their party’s inevitable candidate has been more than many conservative activists can bear. (A typical quote about Romney from a local hyper-activist: “I don’t have the time for him. If he were president, we’d have to mobilize for every appointment, every regulation, every agenda item. He thinks of us the way old man Bush did — as them.”)

These sturdy people, these conservative yeomen, are now voting for Newt Gingrich. Well, to be more precise, they are voting for the idea of Newt Gingrich: They are voting not for a specific candidate, as such, but for the process that produced him. They want to see that process attenuated. They want to hear the arguments refined and developed. They want to match up their man with this historical moment. Their fundamental question reduces to this: Just where is our beloved country in the arc of history? Does the present circumstance call for minor course correction, and thus the nomination of a skilled if incorrigibly establishmentarian manager? Or is it late in the American day when only a risk-embracing, cliché-busting, paradigm-shaking candidate will suffice? Many Florida activists have gravitated to the latter view and have thus embraced Newt as a placeholder who will allow them to participate in the next phase of the process. They support him as a man whose baggage can be left unexamined precisely because he can wave a golden passport at the border guards: It is well known to the authorities that he has committed multiple acts of political revolution before and he seems altogether capable of committing additional such acts in the future. Revolutionary acts, they sense, may be exactly what’s needed in this moment of crisis.

This spasm of Newtonian effrontery has caused the party establishment to panic. As I write these words, I have received three robo-calls in the last eleven minutes, all of them attacks on Crazy, Irresponsible, Unethical, Nutso Newt. The most intelligible of these calls was recorded by Chris Christie, the most regrettable by Pam Bondi, Florida’s attorney general, who was sworn in just last year as a tea-party favorite but is now doing duty for Mr. Inevitable. Really, Pam? I did not catch the name of Caller #3, but he was clearly assigned to travel the low road. My goodness, what an indictment. As I hang up on Caller #3, I surprise myself by remembering that Newt remains at large, still walking the streets as a free man. All three of the callers radiate the same kind of raw enthusiasm for their man Mitt that fired the campaigns of Bob Dole and John McCain. Their basic pitch is: “Mitt Romney — he’s not as crazy, irresponsible, or unethical as the other guy.”

I am not exactly sure who belongs to the establishment across the state, but if it includes senior corporate executives, party officials, lobbyists, bankers, politically wired PR types, “nonprofit leaders,” and gated-community grandees, the establishment is all in for Romney. They’ve got the money, the letterheads, the pre-greased channels of influence, and that tingly sensation the privileged class always feels in the presence of a gathering mob. The Romney people assert, with all the power of governing metaphor, that Florida is a “firewall” against the insurgent rabble. Sure, Iowa can be dominated by the God squad and South Carolina is always a dogfight, they say, but Florida favors the well-financed and the well-prepared. It is the man among boy-states. (I would note, additionally, that while it has been misreported elsewhere, it is literally true here: Romney has been running nonstop for five years.)

The establishmentarians may be right. They should win. The record is clear that the guys with the tanks usually beat the kids with the candles. But if they don’t win — if the late break goes Newt-ward — I offer herewith a small, don’t-bet-the-rent-money prediction. The process will begin afresh. Romney will wither away, up against the hard reality that the Republican base simply cannot be dragged kicking and screaming to a cellophane-wrapped Romney nomination. With Newt installed as the placeholder, attention will then begin to drift again, first perhaps to Rick Santorum or Mitch Daniels, and then to Bobby Jindal and Chris Christie and, at least for a long moment, to Paul Ryan. Horizons will broaden, scenarios will proliferate.

— Neal B. Freeman is a longtime contributor to National Review.

Neal B. FreemanMr. Freeman is a former editor of and columnist for National Review and the founding producer of Firing Line. This article has been adapted from his new book, Walk with Me: An Invitation to Faith.

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