It's Not About Newt
GOP voters are sending a clarion call to the party establishment, but it seems GOP leaders are not getting the message. The statement being sent to the GOP elite isn't about Newt, and it goes beyond even Romney. It is about a deep dissatisfaction that has been building for years within the Republican rank and file.
With the proclamations of Bob Dole and others against Newt Gingrich recently, it is clear the GOP establishment fears a Gingrich nomination. In truth, however, it is the GOP establishment's own ineffectual leadership that led to the recent surge of the former Speaker of the House.
The prevailing wisdom in Washington and the media is that Newt's re-birth in South Carolina is due to his fiery debate performances, which is true, but what happened in the polls goes far beyond clear articulation of conservative principles and debate prowess. Yes, the Republican voters want a fighter, someone who will take on President Obama, but Newt's boldness and passion resonated so well with the disaffected party base, they were willing to overlook his huge political and personal shortcomings. There is a larger lesson here.
According to Rasmussen Reports, just five days before the South Carolina vote, Mitt Romney held a 14 point lead over Gingrich. After two debate performances, the final primary results showed a nearly 27 percentage point swing in Newt's favor, with the Speaker finishing almost 13 points ahead of Romney. A shift that large, that fast, reveals a weakness not just in Romney's support, but in the establishment GOP's support as well.
Political debate-goers are not prone to giving standing ovations. Jumping to your feet and cheering is something enthusiastic fans watching a Super Bowl do, not conservative GOP loyalists watching their candidates in an intraparty debate. The fact that such an audience, and surely millions of viewers at home, felt such elation, such euphoric relief, that they were prompted to offer not one, but multiple standing ovations to a political candidate, demonstrates the utter paucity of spirit and lack of understanding so glaringly obvious in the GOP political elite.
Unfortunately, the GOP elite's failure to understand exactly why Gingrich did so well portends the sad prospect that Republican leadership isn't going to improve anytime soon. In election after election, and on issue after issue, the Republican base has felt increasingly frustrated and disappointed by their party's leadership, who have consistently underperformed, buckled under media and opposition pressure, and squandered any mandate provided them by the American people.
With a candidate like Newt, who brings with him loads of personal and political baggage, such reactions as those seen in the debates reveal sentiments that run much deeper, and that have been building far longer than any one campaign season. The Republican rank and file have been sending messages to their party leaders for years, but without avail. The GOP has touted itself as the party of fiscal responsibility and smaller government, but for too many years, their supporters have seen government and spending continue to spiral out of control, even when they put Republicans in charge.
In 2006, Republicans were sent a resounding rebuke, losing both the Senate and the House after 12 years of controlling majorities. After defeating an uninspiring establishment GOP candidate in the 2008 election, President Obama promptly showed the disaffected Republican voters what real spending was like, making the ousted Republicans look downright miserly.
Realizing just how much worse things could be under liberal Democrat control, the American people rose up. The Tea Party was born. In 2010, frustrated Tea Partiers sent Republicans back to congress in an attempt to stop the profligate spending. The mandate could hardly have been clearer. Even Obama admitted to taking a shellacking.
While it is true Republicans control only one chamber of one branch of the federal government, the change the American people sent them to Washington to effect has not happened. The frustration that led Tea Partiers to demonstrate in public squares and dominate town halls around the country has not been alleviated. The debt limit battle was lost, the economy continues to stagnate, and the GOP establishment is once again pushing a candidate that fails to inspire hope that he can actually make real change happen in Washington.
Unlike many of the Occupy Wall Street movement protestors, the Tea Party conservatives had businesses to run, and jobs to return to, but the frustration and anger they felt is still very real. They are tired of sending people to Washington, Republicans claiming to be the party of fiscal responsibility, only to see things continue to get worse.
Romney lost big in South Carolina against split opposition support. However, Mitt shouldn't take it personally. The "Anybody but Romney" vote, could well be renamed the "Anybody but What We've Already Tried" vote. The Republican voters have already tried the next-in-line, safe, establishment candidate, and lost--to Obama no less. As heroic as they have been in wars past, there are no more perfect examples of this kind of unexciting candidate as John McCain and Bob Dole, both of whom have now publicly endorsed Romney.
If they had a real understanding of why Newt surged, and why their preferred candidate has failed to connect with voters, they would have kept McCain and Dole as far from cameras and microphones as possible. To many, Romney is the best Republicans have in their current field of candidates, but to openly associate him with the same tired, uninspiring cast of characters of elections past is more than just bad political strategy. The tone-deafness of the Republican establishment could not be more astounding.
The voters want someone who understands their frustration, anger, and concern for the future of the country. They are tired of candidates too timid to say it like it is, candidates so afraid to offend the smallest of minorities with uncomfortable truths they instead exasperate the majority through monotonous political-speak, media-safe answers, and unfulfilled promises.
The stakes are higher than ever. The Republican base is ready. Their message is loud and clear. If the Republican establishment had the willingness to hear, and the courage to tap into and focus the dissatisfaction and passion so evident in the party base, the change we all would like to see would be possible. Until they get that message, however, it looks like it is going to be business as usual.
Contact Joseph M. Koenig