Two recent stories illustrate the fascinating and complicated relationship Newt Gingrich has with the Republican party’s conservative base, and how that will play out if he wins the nomination. The first is Nate Silver’s piece in the New York Times, which convincingly demonstrates that the Gingrich revolution of 1994 solidified a move to the right by congressional Republicans that continues to this day.
That is, the average Republican in the House is more conservative than before Gingrich’s leadership, and that trend has persisted in his absence. While Gingrich may not be considered a Tea Partier per se, Silver’s data argue that Gingrich laid the foundation for the movement’s electoral success. In one sense, this would seem to make Gingrich the easy choice over Mitt Romney for conservatives. But the other story complicates the picture a bit.
Liberal historian Michael Kazin writes that he “sincerely hope[s] Newt Gingrich wins the Republican nomination for president: It could bring a healthy candor to our politics and end up boosting the fortunes of liberalism as well.” Kazin’s reasoning is simple: President Obama would have to accept Gingrich’s debate challenge, and the result would be an intelligent, honest conversation about liberalism and conservatism in this country. Kazin thinks Obama would win the election, and thereby deal a serious blow to the credibility of American conservatism, as Americans would have (in his scenario) voiced a clear preference for liberalism.
Kazin needs to employ a type of bait-and-switch for this argument to have any coherence, however, because as Kazin must surely know, Gingrich is more a Rockefeller Republican than a Tea Party-style conservative, and does not instinctively shy away from an energetic federal government.
And therein lies the challenge for conservatives. Because Gingrich is tied to a certain degree to the conservative movement through his House leadership in the ’90s, a Gingrich loss to Obama would be spun by the media the way Kazin attempts to here. But to get an idea of the bad-faith spin the Democrats would employ, watch what Kazin does to bridge the ideological gap between Gingrich and the base:
When Gingrich calls for setting up a private retirement system to compete with Social Security, the president could explain why the current system is equitable as well as cheaper and more reliable. When Newt proposes that boards of citizens vote on whether undocumented immigrants in their localities should stay or be deported, Obama can respond with tales of the vigilante groups that terrorized German immigrants in World War I and Japanese-Americans in World War II. When Gingrich argues for a flat tax, the president would defend the egalitarian logic that underlies the progressive income tax. And if Newt really wants kids to spend time mopping the floors and cleaning the toilets of their schools, the president can remind him why child labor laws got passed in the first place….
It would expose the moral and logical defects of the conservative ideology that has been mostly dominant in the U.S. since 1980, even under Democratic presidents.
See what he did there? A private retirement system, immigrant deportation boards, a flat tax, and child labor–not one of these has been “conservative ideology that has been mostly dominant” in American politics. These are ideas that may or may not stick with Gingrich, not bedrock conservative policies that would have to be uprooted for Obama’s vision of America to take hold.
In one sense, this is just part of the left’s association of anything they deem good with liberalism and anything they deem bad with conservatism. But in another sense, it’s a preview of the coming intellectual attack on conservatism that helps explain why conservatives have been reluctant to throw their weight behind either of the current frontrunners.