For the past few months we’ve been hearing a lot in the mainstream media about the demise of the Tea Party and conservative Republicans in general. After their triumph in 2010 the Tea Party’s influence was supposed to have peaked last summer during the debt ceiling crisis. The failure of presidential candidates who openly identified with the movement such as Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Perry was seen as evidence of their not being able to even influence the GOP. But yesterday’s big victory in the South Carolina primary by Newt Gingrich is a clear indication that conservatives are still calling the tune in the Republican Party and anyone who thinks their concerns can be ignored or swept to the side is mistaken.
Gingrich won because, unlike Mitt Romney, he was able to tap into the genuine anger that conservatives in this country feel for President Obama and his cheerleaders in the liberal media echo chamber. While Gingrich’s claim to be the true conservative in the race is highly questionable, there is no question that he was the best at articulating the same fervor that helped galvanize Tea Party sentiment and sweep the last midterm elections. If Romney hopes to keep Gingrich’s latest comeback from gaining enough momentum to deny him the GOP nomination, he is going to have to find a way to convince conservatives that he is not merely a technocrat who understands the economy but a man who understands and can articulate their core beliefs. In other words, not only is the Tea Party’s moment not in the past, it is still very much the future of the Republican Party.
Needless to say, liberals are not taking this development with a good grace.
The New York Times editorial column this morning attempted to rationalize Gingrich’s win by attributing it to conservative racism. This is a liberal canard that has been repeated endlessly in the last two years without any proof to back it up. But the anger that the Times and other liberals mistake for racism is genuine. It is not, however, fueled by racism or a wish to deny minorities opportunities but a function of the frustration that many Americans feel about Obama’s reckless spending and taxing that is leading the country over the economic cliff.
Romney has a case to make to conservatives about his ideas being a better fit on the economy than those of Gingrich. But his cool demeanor and inability to create some chemistry with the electorate is a genuine obstacle to his presidential hopes. By contrast, Gingrich described himself as not a great debater but someone who can “articulate the deepest values of the American people.” It’s easy to scoff at the typical false modesty in this boast but there is something to what he’s driving at. It must be acknowledged that what happened in the last week is in large measure the product of his ability to channel conservative and Tea Party sentiment about liberal politicians and journalists.
The vast compendium of “grandiose” schemes and slogans that emanate from the former speaker are all over the ideological map. His personal flaws and abysmal leadership style make it difficult to imagine him winning the presidency. But unless Romney can figure a way to speak to the hearts as well as the minds of conservatives, he may deliver the GOP nomination to Gingrich.
In the nine days until the Florida primary and most especially the two debates in the state this week, Romney must start speaking directly to conservatives. Last night in his South Carolina concession speech, he gave us a hint of the sort of language that he might use to do that when he spoke of a campaign to defend free enterprise against the party of big government and those Republicans like Gingrich who have employed the arguments of the left to try to tear him down. We’ll need to hear a lot more of that and to hear it spoken with the sort of passion that Gingrich can so easily summon if Romney is ultimately to prevail.