Political professionals sometimes speak of … “the mood of the electorate.” This subtle force goes beyond ideology, policy and even character. The ability to read and respond to the public’s mood often represents the difference between winning and losing.
The current mood of the country? Disaffection. Congress’s approval rating is in the single digits. The president’s is, at 42%, dramatically lower than that of any other elected president in his third year since the dawn of polling — far lower than that of the feckless, politically doomed, Carter.
The technocratic Mitt Romney has proven his appeal to Republican moderate primary voters, perhaps one-third of the party. The much larger conservative base, however, enthusiastically kept sampling insurgent contenders in search of an antidote to disaffection: a populist progressive conservative.
“Populist progressive conservative” is a hard combination to pull off. But it can be done. Populist means optimistic about people’s ability to govern themselves. Progressive stands for champion of the little guy against powerful insider special interests. Conservative? Fundamentally committed to free enterprise, traditional values and a robust America. Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, two Gingrich icons, did it. Gingrich, perhaps uniquely this cycle, may have threaded this very needle.
Obama, appealing to the mood, invoked popular disaffection in his recent speech at Osawatomie, Kan., site of Colonel Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech:
[T]here has been a raging debate over the best way to restore growth and prosperity; balance and fairness. Throughout the country, it has sparked protests and political movements – from the Tea Party to the people who have been occupying the streets of New York and other cities. It’s left Washington in a near-constant state of gridlock. And it’s been the topic of heated and sometimes colorful discussion among the men and women who are running for president.
… Theodore Roosevelt … believed then what we know is true today: that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history. It’s led to a prosperity and standard of living unmatched by the rest of the world.
But Roosevelt also knew that the free market has never been a free license to take whatever you want from whoever you can. It only works when there are rules of the road to ensure that competition is fair, open, and honest. …. ‘Our country,’ he said, ‘…means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy…of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.’
2012 may end up having as its totem animal neither Jackass nor Pachyderm, but the Bull Moose. TR was outcompeted in the 1912 general election by Wilson, who promised to more aggressively “tear down this wall” of tariffs. TR lost his bid for a then-unprecedented third term on the short-lived National Progressive Party platform. Time Magazine’s Patricia O’Toole in her 2006 article, “The War of 1912,” summarizes:
Although Republicans of the day cast the Progressives as radicals, in truth they were teachers and lawyers, farmers and small-town folk, urban reformers of every ilk, crusaders for peace and women’s suffrage, champions of the little guy. They were less a movement than a catch basin for civic-minded men and women impatient with politics as usual but a bit frightened of Eugene V. Debs and his Socialist Party. While many Progressives could not see past their pet causes, T.R. managed to bring them together in a big tent held aloft by the idea that the government, which ought to serve the people, had been hijacked by special interests. ‘To destroy this invisible government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day,’ the Progressive platform declared. [Emphasis added.]
Another way of thinking about populism is “champion of the little guy.” What does this mean today? America is built on the axiom that “all … are created equal.” This columnist’s colleague Jeffrey Bell devoted an iconic book, Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality, to pondering this matter and concluded that much hinges on the definition of equality.
America — rooted in Democratic Capitalism — defines itself by equality of opportunity. Europe — rooted in Social Democracy— defines itself by equality of results. One of Gingrich’s three key tenets is American exceptionalism. The 2012 election likely will determine whether America remains exceptional or, finally, is, culturally, reconquered by Europe.
The electorate, now, seems to have set up the 2012 presidential contest to fight out the very meaning of equality. Obama, for all of his lip service to free enterprise, has made the American Jobs Act the centerpiece of his re-election effort. He proposes to soak the rich (“all paid for!”) for hundreds of billions of dollars for the have-nots, privileging equality of result and prejudicing equality of opportunity. Gingrich’s platform tips toward equality of opportunity. Gingrich’s job creation platform proposes to remove many obstacles to wealth creation, privileging equality of opportunity and prejudicing equality of result.
Gingrich proposes to use government power to unleash the free market. So perverse are the incentives, so inept are government officials, that libertarian consternation at such a proposal is more than understandable.
But the libertarians (whose presidential champion Gary Johnson consistently drew asterisks) are not representative of the broad electorate. Moreover, business oligarchies can (with government connivance) exist. It was an exercise in government power — the breakup of AT&T — that obliterated the black, corded, dial phone and paved the way for our modern, feature-rich, telecom environment. The libertarian stance that “the king can do no right” is but the doctrinal obverse to the monarchist’s adage that “the king can do no wrong.”
The Gingrich campaign thus represents a dramatic shift in the political discourse. It shifts it, for the moment, from how to shrink government to how to put the government on the side of the people rather than the special interests. Gingrich is shrewd. The short-lived Progressive Party’s 1912 platform, called A Contract With the People, presents as the very model for the history-rich Gingrich’s Contract with America and 21st Century Contract With America.
Roosevelt declaimed in 1912: “I believe in the right of the people to rule. I believe that the majority of the plain people of the United States will day in and day out make fewer mistakes in governing themselves than any smaller class or body of men no matter what their training will make in trying to govern them.” (To hear an original recording of this speech, click here.)
The presidential contest of 2012, like 1912, thus presents as a textbook case of populism vs. elitism. Two versions of a People’s Paladin are attacking the entrenched cronyism of the Insiders. Obama proposes to loot the wealthy and spread it around among the have-nots. Gingrich proposes to remove obstacles so that the have-nots can make themselves into haves. The issue is joined.
Populism—championship of the little guy—resonates with the current mood. Several appealing GOP candidates brought the excitement of challenging the status quo as populist conservatives. None, apparently, successfully made the case that they are populist progressive (champion of the little guy) conservatives. Then came the Gingrich surge.
The conservative movement’s leadership, sensing that there can be such a thing as a populist progressive conservative, resolved its apparent love-hate relationship with Gingrich toward love last week. This removed what might have been the final major remaining obstacle to his nomination.
Conservative eminences Richard Viguerie and Diana Banister hosted a gathering of 63 conservative leaders to receive Gingrich. That meeting’s tenor was captured to perfection in the headline of an article by George Rasley, writing in Viguerie’s ConservativeHQ: Newt Gingrich Enters the Lion’s Den, Gets Sustained Standing Ovation from Conservative Leaders.
The majority present were conservatives from the economic, social, and “national greatness” wings of the conservative movement. The libertarians, far fewer in number yet impressive in intellect, were either vocally furious over Gingrich’s long-ago, and never repented, facilitation of the Endangered Species Act, or made anxious by Gingrich’s proposing the Ambassador John Bolton as a notional Secretary of State nominee. And yet…
“Speaker Gingrich,” observed Rasley, “concluded his remarks to a sustained standing ovation by saying … that he intended to stay positive and to run a campaign of conservative ideas and that faced with the choice between food stamps and paychecks he trusted in the American people to choose ideas over slander and character assassination every time.”
Gingrich, by embodying the populist progressive conservative spirit of Theodore Roosevelt and of Ronald Reagan seems to have hit just the right note nearly pitch perfectly. That is why, absent the unexpected, Gingrich is likely to sweep the primaries and, America truly being exceptional, win the Osawatomic War of 2012.