The Cognitive Primary
Savvy politicians have long understood that our emotions, especially our feelings about fairness and justice, drive our decisions, including our choice of leaders. Morality is the trump suit in the game of political rhetoric, as Democrats know well.
Certainly Newt Gingrich and his chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney, are both able, intelligent men. Both are skilled in debate. Neither is more conservative than the other. But although the latter is by nearly all polls more electable next November, it is rather the former speaker who is now the frontrunner. The difference seems to be that Gingrich, who recently extolled the virtues of brain science on the campaign trail, has found a way to satisfy profound cognitive needs of conservative voters.
Conservatives are usually at a disadvantage when confronting moral argument with rational analysis. Arthur Brooks, at the American Enterprise Institute (where, perhaps not coincidentally, Gingrich was until recently a senior fellow), has argued that the massive weight of economic evidence in favor of the free enterprise system fails to fully convince because countervailing left-leaning arguments carry greater psychological weight: Balanced budgets and higher GDP are no match for equality and social solidarity. To use cost-benefit reasoning against moral emotion is to bring a knife to a gunfight. Thus, very often if you make a moral argument -- that A is the right thing to do -- it trumps a practical argument that B might work out better.
According to neuroscientists like Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia, the greater force of moral emotion is equally true of the brains of both conservatives and liberals, although the values they respond to differ somewhat. This explains Gingrich's recent rise: The former House speaker has adeptly, especially during debates, undercut the moral force of opposing arguments.
Consider how his comment that Palestinians are an "invented" people created an immediate route to the conclusion nearly all Republicans share: that America needs to be on the side of Israel to a greater extent than reflected in current policy. Whether this is prudent diplomacy is certainly open to doubt. But Romney's reasonable questioning of whether this helps or harms Israel lacks the vividness of Gingrich's formulation.
This approach, as cathartic as it might be, should not obscure the fact that a Gingrich candidacy might prove problematic. It is worth remembering that the former speaker has a long history of significant deviations from conservative orthodoxy (the primary knock against Romney); a personal history which raises questions of judgment and morality; and that his rhetorical flourishes have a dubious past: shortly before the 1994 election, he tied the notorious murder by Susan Smith of her two children to a "sick society" for which the cure would begin with Republican control of government.
And, not insignificantly, Gingrich's chances in a general election contest against President Barack Obama seem slim. A recent poll by NBC and the Wall Street Journal shows the former speaker trailing the current president by 11 percent in a hypothetical matchup. Polling by Reuters reveals a similar spread, while a Washington Post/ABC survey shows that 48% of the country view Gingrich unfavorably. Although Gingrich can give voice to the values of many conservatives, the rest of the country is unmoved or indeed, averse to his rhetoric. The polls, conversely, show Romney in a near dead heat with the president.
Romney's long experience in the private sector, where data-driven analyses of the costs and benefits of every plan are expected and often legally required could arguably make him an effective president. But people don't make voting decisions the way corporate boards must; they're underwhelmed by justifications based largely on utilitarian interest. Thus, some focus groups have labeled the former Massachusetts governor "unexciting," "calculating," "distant." even "robotic." All of these perceptions (likely quite untrue on a personal level) are different labels for an undeveloped emotional connection to a segment of voting public.
If Romney ultimately prevails in the primaries on the basis of his advantages in electability and executive experience, a stronger moral tone will almost certainly be necessary to win the election against Obama, who is a skilled expositor of left-of-center ideological formulations - and extraordinarily successful in persuading a nation of roughly 80% non-liberals to be swayed by them.
The president, in his high-profile speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, and related appearance on 60 Minutes, made clear his intention of running on a moral contrast with the policies of his opponents. In his speech, he drove home the message by repeating over and over "it is wrong" (six times) and using the morally-loaded "fair" or variations some 15 times.
By arguing the policies he opposes are not just wrong-headed but wrongful, he is practicing sophisticated neuropolitics. To effectively respond, any Republican candidate will have to make the moral, not just practical, case for what they believe. That is, they will have to justify in appealing ways a federalist and capitalist system where local communities protect basic human needs, but which values freedom, opportunity, growth, and the rule of law over a material equality created by the powers of the central government.
The phrase "compassionate conservatism" is often derided today from both the right and the left. Yet as a sincere policy of candidate and then President George W. Bush, during the 2000 and 2004 campaigns, it gave moral reassurance to many voters that voting Republican was ethically acceptable as well as economically sensible, and played a useful role in what were narrow GOP victories. While we certainly do not suggest reemploying this term or its features, the principle of removing the sting from liberal talking points is sound policy and politics.
There are early, mostly unnoticed, signs that Romney may well be able to articulate a moral vision for his candidacy that could neutralize the president's strategy. In doing so, the former Massachusetts governor, as Ross Douthat has pointed out, has quietly positioned himself well to appeal to the independent and disaffected Obama voters who will decide next year's contest. Romney's recent debate comments that he would "focus on where the people are hurting the most, and that's the middle class" and that he is "not worried about rich people. They are doing just fine," being just two examples.
If the moral trump cards of the left are successfully countered, secondary considerations would come into operation, and Romney would have a set of distinct advantages. His exemplary personal life and business career would make him a highly credible messenger of arguments that link values to economic policy. Moreover, as someone elected statewide with significant Democratic support, he has the insight and experience to craft both moral and practical arguments with crossover appeal.
Finally, with the moral contest to some extent stalemated, decision-making in the minds of undecided voters could then proceed to a utilitarian assessment of which candidate is likely to run the government efficiently and best advance national prosperity; this "tiebreaking" mental analysis would favor Romney.
If he can endure Gingrich's surge, articulate his positions and desire for office in the moral language of right and wrong, and if Republicans ultimately decide they desire a candidate who can win and then govern effectively rather than rile and justify their passions, Mitt Romney may well be the next president.
Charles N. W. Keckler, a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, and Ryan L. Cole, a Deputy Counselor for Policy and Speechwriting, both served in the Administration for Children and Families in the administration for President George W. Bush.