Salvo from South Carolina: Darn voters thinking for themselves again
posted at 2:47 pm on January 22, 2012 by J.E. Dyer
There are several explanations we’re likely to hear about the outcome in South Carolina on Saturday. Most of them will involve the voters being silly and not knowing what’s good for them. (I especially like the variant that says South Carolina voters went for Newt Gingrich – Newt Gingrich! – because they’re right next to Georgia. Yeah, right. Gingrich is Mr. New American South.)
If the voters weren’t silly, they would understand that it has to be Mitt Romney, because, well, primary voters were silly and picked Christine “I am not a witch” O’Donnell over Mike Castle in Delaware, not to mention running with that goofy Sharron Angle in Nevada, and look how that turned out. You can’t get California and you probably can’t get New York, if you’re the GOP nominee. But you have a good shot at Pennsylvania and Ohio, Michigan and maybe even Illinois, if you’re Mitt Romney. Newt Gingrich? Forget it. Gingrich can’t even win Georgia.
And the truth is, this analysis isn’t necessarily wrong. If I had to make a bet, I’d bet that a Newt Gingrich nominated to run for the GOP in November would implode on the campaign trail. He’d still make a better president than Obama, but his “sticking it to the media” shtick in the debates would lose its luster when he faced Obama. He comes across as easily annoyed; the feistiness that resonates with voter sentiment in the primaries would weather time and tides poorly. As between an irritable Gingrich and a cool, scripted Obama, I would predict without hesitation that the latter’s jokes during a debate would come off better. All things being equal, that is.
As with the O’Donnell-Castle primary outcome in 2010, however, it’s not the voters who are silly. They know that all things aren’t equal in 2012. The voters who put Gingrich over the top yesterday believe that we can’t keep going down the same political path in the United States – and that that holds for Republicans at least as much as for Democrats, if not more. Their perception is that the GOP leadership is invested in the current path of government: that it doesn’t want change; it is not committed to restoring liberty and limited government, but instead is comfortable with the growth of regulatory intrusiveness, and seeks merely to broker pragmatic accommodations to leftist activism as a sort of rear-guard action.
Considering that the GOP has been doing this for most of the last 80 years, the voters aren’t wrong. They aren’t wrong about Mitt Romney: his record of enthusiastic accommodations to the left is a set of rusty, clanking weights tethered to the back of the Mitt-mobile. Gingrich and Santorum both have some ‘splainin’ to do as well, but Gingrich has specifically repudiated some of his earlier faux pas (such as the snuggle-up with Nancy Pelosi on combating “global warming”). He also speaks trenchantly on the issues that exercise the most voters: federal debt, health care regulation, regulation in general, government intervention in the economy, illegal immigration.
It does matter to primary voters, moreover, that Gingrich “takes it to” the media by rhetorically denouncing the questions posed in the GOP debates. Voters on the right perceive the one-sided political attitude of the media to be a significant problem for American politics. And while I don’t get as excited as others do about Gingrich’s little rhetorical broadsides in the debates –responding with broadsides isn’t, per se, a component of leadership – this is another thing the voters aren’t wrong about. Media bias is a problem, not only in politics but for our public life in general. People believe a lot of things that aren’t so today because of the particular narratives favored by the major media. The perception of public assent generated by the media’s formulations produces an environment for government taking actions that jeopardize our liberties.
Many voters are determined not to be ruled by federal executive agencies whose agendas are approved by MSNBC and the New York Times. These voters are voting for the candidate they deem most likely to reverse America’s slide into precisely that method of government. That they see such a candidate in Newt Gingrich speaks more loudly about the general state of the GOP than about anything else. Voters are seeking to break the inertia and conventionalism of the Republican Party; this is, in fact, a power struggle, and one in which I would not bet against the voters.
The famous salvo from South Carolina in April 1861 precipitated a shooting war under old conditions that no longer prevail. The Union had all the material advantage in that war, as it had the moral advantage in being determined to preserve the national union while ending slavery.
But today’s South is no longer under such a disadvantage. A political salvo from the South is a different portent now. Likewise, the Republican Party doesn’t hold a Union-like advantage over its members, nor is there any valid reason for our federal government to hold such an advantage over a law-abiding people. Today’s “rebel” GOP voters in South Carolina aren’t the slave-regime old guard, they’re the abolitionists. We need not be deceived that wanting to reverse the encroachments of the federal government, and defeat the plantation mentality in Washington, is evidence of irresponsibility or lawlessness. The truth is closer to the opposite.
The people have one tool – the vote – by which to express the sentiment that things have to change. In 2008, Mitt Romney didn’t look all that different from George W. Bush. The Obama tenure has been a wake-up call that has put Romney in a new perspective: in 2012, he doesn’t look as different from Barack Obama as conservative voters would prefer. Obama is less an outlier than the end-gamer of the same big-government principles embraced by both major parties over the past 80 years. We have now seen with our own eyes where those principles lead, and the voters don’t want to go there. It’s not the voters who need to wise up; it’s the Republican Party.