In the past two weeks, conservatives began pushing back against the notion that the Republican nomination should be decided by debate performances. They note, as Guy Benson does, that there will be no Lincoln-Douglas debates in the fall, and that Newt Gingrich would be lucky if President Obama even honored the traditional three-debate custom.
This is true, as is the complaint that the ability to score points off of mainstream media moderators does not presage the ability to score points off of the president of the United States. Last night, with no audience participation, Gingrich seemed to show just how much he has benefited from it in the recent past. But while all this may be true, it’s important to reject the idea that Gingrich’s rise is due only to made-for-YouTube moments. His campaign is not free of substance, most notably the following.
This morning, Jim Geraghty pointed to a post by Laura W. at Ace of Spades HQ, in which she discusses the fact that for many voters, Gingrich’s famous “food stamp” moment in the first South Carolina debate had nothing to do with race–it was about the value of work:
This administration seems to think that Americans should view work as a vampire perceives holy water, and nearly every policy out of D.C. reflects that.
Well, we don’t think that way. We’re Americans. We want to work. Dammit, we’re ready to get back to it. Give us the reins to our own lives, stick your food stamps back… where they came from, and get out of the way. You’re killing us.
This message resonates. That’s why Gingrich won. Not just the slap at ‘the elites,’ but the content of the slap.
Dan Foster wrote an essay in the last issue of National Review that, while predating the South Carolina debate, examined a crucial cultural component of the welfare state. It’s not online (and I left my copy at home), so I’ll quote a paragraph from this blog’s transcription of part of the essay:
Due in part to the very acceptance and perceived success of the New Deal and its progeny, the taint of shame associated with being on the dole has long since faded. What’s worse, this moral change has coincided with demographic and actuarial changes that have made entitlements more lopsidedly redistributive, and thus unsustainable. Now, dependence on the federal government — not just by the poor, but by the middle and even upper classes — for everything from health insurance to home ownership, college to retirement, is so complete that most of us don’t notice the stream of subsidies until it is interrupted. And worse, we’re not even ashamed of ourselves.
Again, aside from the discussion of race (which James Taranto defends, expertly and convincingly, in yesterday’s column), Gingrich is participating in a series of substantive discussions on the welfare state and the corrosive quality of an entitlement society. And it isn’t just the base, with its rapacious appetite for red meat. Here’s David Frum lamenting that “the president is championing a more active government, not as a way to meet social needs but as a permanent and growing source of middle-class employment”–a model that not only failed in Britain under successive Labour governments, Frum notes, but actually increased economic inequality without raising the poor out of poverty.
In other words, the Obama model is fatally flawed. And who is making this argument as well as Frum? Newt Gingrich–and in a very public venue. Those who worry that a Gingrich nomination would take the heat off the president and make the election a referendum on the Republican nominee are expressing well-founded fears–fears that Gingrich has not, but must, dispel if he is going to be successful. And there is certainly an element of showmanship to what Gingrich is doing. But I’ve just quoted a conservative blogger, National Review, and David Frum all making similar arguments to the former speaker.
There is no reason to ignore Gingrich’s flaws, and his critics (especially those who served with him in Congress) shouldn’t be dismissed. A truly transparent nomination process would air all this out. But the notion that Gingrich is waging a vapid campaign for the presidency is unfair and incorrect. The erratic behavior may be vintage Gingrich–but so is the culture warrior who has emerged. The discussion over the weaknesses of the messenger is part of the vetting process, and Gingrich knows that. But it’s hard to argue with the message.