The last time Gingrich held office, he reached a depth of unpopularity that suggested that the public did not merely disagree with his policies but disliked him as a person. Memories have faded, and his current fans say he is a changed man. But he still has the rhetorical style — by turns incendiary, grandiose, and abrasive — that turned off middle-of-the-road Americans then. (November 16: “Because I am much like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher . . .”) And he does not seem to have learned that aspiring presidents should weigh their words carefully. Recall the events that led to his campaign’s meltdown this summer, in which he first praised Paul Ryan’s plan for entitlements, then condemned it as “right-wing social engineering,” and finally apologized to Ryan for the comment.
There is another issue with Gingrich, the broaching of which risks cruelty but cannot be avoided in the cold analysis Republicans have to perform. We don’t know whether Gingrich’s marital history will weigh heavily on voters, but we know it won’t help. The contrast to President Obama’s family will tell against him. Gingrich’s election would represent several firsts. He would be the first president with multiple ex-wives, and the first president with any ex-wives who speak negatively about him on the record. He would bring with him the first first lady who could be labeled a “home wrecker.” President Obama would not have to say a word about any of this for the press to make it an issue.
Governor Romney has his weaknesses as a candidate, too. In the past only high-income voters have demonstrated a natural affinity for him. His flip-flops are well documented. He won’t be able to take full advantage of the unpopularity of Obamacare. A significant number of voters will hold his Mormonism against him, although Republican voters in recent surveys seem likely to look past this misgiving in the interest of retiring Obama and most Democrats who oppose Mormon candidates won’t be available to any Republican nominee. But he is also reasonable, articulate — phenomenally articulate, by the standards of recent Republican presidential candidates — and reassuring. Democrats will try to make him into a scary figure, but they will have less to work with than if Republicans nominated Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Perry, or Rick Santorum. He has improved as a campaigner, and now usually projects an air of command that eluded him in the last presidential race.
To Romney’s conservative critics, this assessment is all wrong. Romney cannot win in November 2012, they say, because conservative voters will lack the motivation to cast ballots for someone so uninspiring and moderate. Thomas Sowell and George Will are among the conservative heavyweights who have made this case recently, with Sowell noting pointedly that the conservative Reagan won two presidential elections where moderates such as Bob Dole and John McCain have lost them.
Yet George W. Bush won two elections, albeit close ones, with positions to Romney’s left and rhetoric that attempted to distance him from the bulk of conservatives. (He was the compassionate one, you may recall.) The truth is that Republicans have never lost a presidential election because an otherwise viable nominee could not get conservatives to vote. The exit polls from the 2008 election show that the race was lost in the center of the electorate. If Romney is anywhere near Obama in the polls in October 2012, conservative voters will show up to help him. To win, though, he will also need some votes from people who voted for Obama in 2008 — and he has a much better chance of getting them than his rivals do.
So far the Republican primaries have been a testament to the common sense of the party rank-and-file. As candidates and near-candidates have enjoyed their bursts of publicity, Republican voters have greeted them one by one with an open mind and high hopes, only to reject them as their flaws became apparent. Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Bachmann, Perry, and Cain have all gone through this process. In reacting this way, Republican voters have disproven the caricatures that liberals and too many conservatives have indulged: that they care only about attitude and volume, not knowledge or judgment.
The right thing for Republican voters to do now is to make Romney undergo the rigors of a competitive primary and then grant him the nomination. My bet is that’s exactly what they’re going to do.