Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Republican Tribalism

For most of the postwar era, the GOP was divided between conservatives and moderates, or more accurately a number of ideological tribes that coalesced around different issues and personalities. Nelson Rockefeller was widely understood as the leading moderate figure on the national scene, in part due to his liberal views on the emerging “social issues,” yet he was also a staunch anti-communist and he embraced a punitive approach to criminal justice. Yet Rockefeller was to the right of John V. Lindsay and, arguably, George Romney, the Republican governor of Michigan who sharply increased education and social welfare spending and fought hard to establish a state income tax to pay for it. Romney was a pragmatic business executive, but he was also part of what we might call the “conscience Whig” tradition: he was a devoutly religious man who married his brand of moralism to government activism on behalf of the less fortunate. Before the mid-twentieth century, when the encounter with totalitarianism led to a redefinition of American liberalism as anti-paternalism (on the left and the right), this was not an uncommon amalgam. The Progressive movement, for example, was closely tied to the Prohibition movement and, more broadly, to a nativist politics that sought to assert the supremacy of the (dwindling) native-born Protestant majority. To modern eyes, there is no logical connection between these strands. But at the time, they seemed inseparable. And we’re not even talking about the gold standard and the tariff, etc. 

When we think of Ronald Reagan, we tend to see a recognizable figure with preoccupations quite similar to those of contemporary conservative activists and thinkers. It is worth remembering, however, that one of the issues that propelled his 1976 candidacy was his fierce opposition to handing sovereignty over the Panama Canal Zone to Panama’s dictatorial government. William F. Buckley Jr., an ally of Reagan for decades, found himself on the other side of that debate, which polarized the right. At the time, some voices on the right feared that surrendering the Canal Zone was only a first step towards surrendering other U.S. territories. In hindsight, that view seems somewhat fanciful. 

Today, observers often marvel at the fact that Republican foreign policy discussions are dominated by Israel and the Palestinians, while the shift of the world’s economic center of gravity to East Asia is given (relatively) short shrift. Some foreign policy issues dominate our thinking because they’re fraught with symbolism. 

One of the things I find most interesting about old-school moderates is that many of them weren’t actually all that moderate. There were many articulate anti-statists in their ranks, who wanted to introduce more choice and competition into public services. They just realized more quickly than some of their counterparts that the welfare state was here to say and that it shouldn’t be allowed to crowd out private initiative. On foreign policy, many moderates sensed early on that Vietnam wasn’t the wisest place to invest U.S. manpower and resources. It was very easy to imagine a scenario in which the GOP emerged as the party that was both anticommunist and anti-war, and that embraced the decentralizing ethos of the 1960s and 1970s.

It turns out that Newt Gingrich was, as a graduate student at Tulane, an activist aligned with the moderate Ripon Society and with pro-Rockefeller Republicans. Mitt Romney, as the son of George, was also presumably a moderate. While many other moderates defected from the GOP as the party grew more conservatives, some stayed in the fold and moved right. Romney, of course, is an idiosyncratic case, as he lived in Massachusetts, where moderate Republicanism as a tribal phenomenon endured for another generation, and he ran as a moderate Republican statewide on two occasions. It is said that he considered remaining in Utah after his stint as head of the Winter Olympics to pursue political office in a more favorable environment. 

We could say that Gingrich and Romney both shifted to the right with their party, whether out of conviction or convenience. I’d argue that something different is at work. Gingrich remains a Ripon Society-style wonk, who sees himself in the vein of Charles de Gaulle. He is a man of ideas and a man of action, at least in his own head, and that’s quite different from being, say, Calvin Coolidge. Romney remains a person deeply motivated by a sense of noblesse oblige, a sense that was widely held among patrician moderate Republicans and that flows from the ethic of the LDS Church, which expects a lot from its most fortunate sons. The fact that they remain Republicans flows from a few different factors: conservatives won a number of intellectual arguments to their satisfaction, loyalty to the Republican brand mattered to them, antipathy to the forces and factions that dominate the other major party repelled them, etc. 

Loyalty is a particularly big deal. Our political identities are only rarely the product of considered judgment. More often they reflect our affiliations and our sense of the kind of people we are — are we the kind of people who are aligned with unionized public school teachers or the kind of people who are aligned with defense contractors? 

So the idea that Gingrich is “more conservative” than Romney or vice versa is, to me at least, kind of fatuous. Neither man is really a creature of the conservative movement. They’re both oddballs. The real question is whether they embrace the emerging domestic policy consensus on the right — premium support for Medicare, tax reform that leads to lower rates and fewer deductions, etc. — whether they’ve demonstrated an ability to run something as large and complex as the federal government and whether they can defeat an incumbent president who has a lot of resources behind him. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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