The Corner

Thursday Night in South Carolina

On the night when Rick Perry lost the third of his three agencies that were prime candidates for removal, we knew that there was going to be no bigger story the next day. Tonight had its equivalent: It was Newt, with the opening gun, tearing after John King and doing the equivalent of Joe Welch’s “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” — the famous retort to Senator McCarthy. Newt was coiled to unloose outrage and anger when King led with the item that surely had to be the most notable story of the day. Rick Perry’s withdrawal was a critical marker, but the revelations of Newt’s former wife, Marianne, was an assault long awaited, and it had a far more powerful possibility for altering the outcome of the race from this point forward. Newt has said several times that he has sought God’s forgiveness. But he has never said that he has sought the forgiveness of the woman he left.

Newt’s handling of the matter surely was a triumph of good theater, perhaps one that will put the issue aside.  But it is not clear to me that it does answer the questions posed here or that it will put the matter aside. I’m drawn to Newt, along with many others, but Rick Santorum raised quite an apt point when he noted that we cannot have in the campaign a candidate who himself becomes the issue — whose personal life gives the media a chance to distract the public from the central issue of Obamacare and, with the same concealing curtain, the emptiness of Obama.

Mitt Romney twice raised the issue of Obama’s veto of the Keystone project, and he was wise to remind people that the choice of candidate was the choice of the person who would frame the case against Obama. But Santorum raised precisely that matter in showing again why the man who brought forth Romneycare could not offer the clearest contrast. I don’t recall a more abrasive encounter in these sessions, with things getting personal in a truly cutting way. Perhaps it’s a matter of “now we are four — or really three” (putting Ron Paul aside). Rick recalled Newt in 2010 urging Republican candidates to put issues like abortion in the background. Newt suggested, in response, that he was just being politic and, in that way, helping to elect the most pro-life Republican majority yet assembled in the House.  But anyone who has heard the stories on the Hill going back 20 years knows that this has been Newt’s line for a long, long while. I’m disposed to believe that he has made a serious change, and I credit what he has said about this issue and himself over the last couple of years.

Rick Santorum, trying tenaciously to sharpen the issue, made several telling points, and his summation at the end was quite moving. And yet, apart from toting up the jabs landed or missed, there is the matter of the feeling imparted overall. Mitt did not score many points, but once again he looked steady, focused, able to keep his balance — in short, again, presidential. The problem burdening Newt and Rick may be put in this way: It looks as though a majority in this country wants to be rid of Obama; but they won’t do it if the alternative is a candidate who scares them. The problem for Newt is even harder: The Republicans are drawn to him precisely because they want to see him rough up Obama in a debate; they don’t want to see Newt suddenly give way to “the better angels” in his nature.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College, the founder of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding, and the architect of the Born-Alive Infants Protection Acts.

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