If in the 19th century, the only “ability” party leaders sought in a candidate was his “availability,” meaning his popularity, in the 21st century, a candidate clearly needs more ability than his — or her — inevitability; doubters should ask Hillary Clinton. During the 2012 campaign’s “invisible primary,” the money-raising, organization-building, early-debating frenzy before any citizen votes, Republican Party leaders decided that this year’s primary season would be a Mitt Romney coronation. Yet, apparently, not enough Republican voters received that memo, or followed it.

One candidate after another has surged, generating excitement and interest temporarily, only to flame out. As of this writing, four candidates remain: former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, former senator Rick Santorum, Congressman Ron Paul and former governor Mitt Romney. Together, these candidates represent the four poles of the big effective Republican tent that Ronald Reagan constructed in the 1980s. Mitt Romney has yet to convince Republicans he can construct a similarly solid and popular structure for the 21st century.

Texas congressman Ron Paul is the libertarian candidate, representing the anti-government impulse at its purest — and most extreme. The newsletters from the 1990s in his name uncovered by The New Republic, which Paul now says he did not write, reflect just how extreme his sensibility is. As the Washington Post reported January 27, 2012: “The articles included racial, anti-Semitic and anti-gay content. They claimed, for example, that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ‘seduced underage girls and boys’; they ridiculed black activists by suggesting that New York be named ‘Zooville’ or ‘Lazyopolis’; and they said the 1992 Los Angeles riots ended ‘when it came time for the blacks to pick up their welfare checks.’”

Paul in some ways evokes the pre-Reagan, 1960s-era John Birch Society right. In those days, conservatives were angrier and more marginal. Paul instinctively recoils at modern government in all its gargantuan size, not just the welfare state. He is an old-fashioned, 19th century constitutionalist, wishing he could turn back the clock to a simpler, thriftier, less governed America. His newsletter suggests that at least originally he did not mind if it was a whiter, more racist, more sexist America, although he is now shrewd enough — or evolved enough — to distance himself from those positions. Thus, he keeps himself as a libertarian, giving off just a whiff of the reactionary he once was.

Ronald Reagan did indeed say in his 1981 inaugural address that “in the present crisis, government is not the solution, government is the problem.” Nevertheless, by the time he became president, Reagan understood that he had to temper his libertarianism with realism, and govern more or less within the status quo. Ultimately, Reagan slowed the rate of growth of government. He did not shrink the government, nor did he close government departments he and his fellow Reaganauts hated, such as the Department of Education. Reagan, who shared Paul’s charming, “aw shucks” sensibility, made conservatism popular by slapping a smileyface on it. Reagan’s conservatismwith-a-smile proved much more popular than the traditionally cranky conservatism of Barry Goldwater, the earlier incarnation of Ron Paul and the John Birchers.

Ronald Reagan did indeed say in his 1981 inaugural address that “in the present crisis, government is not the solution, government is the problem.” Nevertheless, by the time he became president, Reagan understood that he had to temper his libertarianism with realism, and govern more or less within the status quo.

Despite being a Catholic, Rick Santorum has become the darling of the Evangelical Protestant conservatives who still have a very strong voice in the Republican Party, especially during primary season. Santorum’s popularity reflects the maturation of the Moral Majority set, reflecting the Evangelical understanding that American politics cannot be exclusively denominational or confessional. Over the years, the Evangelicals have allied with Orthodox Jews and conservative Catholics — although we are seeing that their coalition-building skills do not yet reach over into Utah, the centre of Mitt Romney’s Mormon religion.

The Reagan revival blazed the trail for the Santorum swoon in two critical ways. First, while the Evangelical entry into politics began in earnest under Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s, Reagan brought it more into the mainstream and solidified its alliance with the Republican Party. But Reagan treated Evangelicals with tough love; while wooing them he often broke their hearts. Reagan did not push the social conservatives’ ABC agenda — fighting abortion, busing and crime — as aggressively as Evangelicals hoped. Rhetorically, he was much tougher on liberals as California’s governor in the 1960s than he was as America’s president in the 1980s. Substantively, both as governor and president, he understood the art of compromise.

Reagan also paved the way by not quite living the Evangelical lifestyle his allies preached. While he had a long, happy marriage to his second wife, Nancy Reagan, Ronald Reagan was the first divorced president, the pater familias of a famously dysfunctional family and a Hollywood type who had gay friends, who had an openness to difference that tempered his image and sometimes frustrated his allies.

Still, the Evangelicals remain a formidable force. Karl Rove and George W. Bush blamed the Bush deadlock with Al Gore in the 2000 election on an estimated 3 to 4 million Evangelicals who stayed at home in November 2000, appalled as they were by rumours of cocaine use and drunk driving by a younger George W. Bush. If Romney wins the nomination, he, too, will have to worry about how to make sure the Evangelicals show up to vote, just as President Barack Obama in 2012 has to figure out how to get young people, independents and other disillusioned members of his 2008 coalition to show up at the polls.

Although former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich had a complex relationship with Ronald Reagan — along with everyone else in the mainstream Republican Party — Gingrich is the 2012 candidate who most carries Reagan’s ideological flame. Gingrich represents the conservative ideology that Reagan mainstreamed, as the GOP lost its liberal wing, its Rockefeller Republicans, as they were known, in honour of the liberal New York governor and Gerald Ford’s vice-president, Nelson Rockefeller. Gingrich is ideologically most in synch with the Republican Party of today, a kind of libertarian lite à la Reagan, with enough conservative positions that could please Evangelicals, and did help him.

Yet, whereas Ronald Reagan’s pleasing personality was so attractive that even many who disagreed with him nevertheless loved him, Newt Gingrich’s mercurial, blowhard, know-it-all personality is so toxic even many who agree with him detest him. The steady drumbeat from former Senate majority leader Bob Dole and also from much of the House leadership of the 1990s denouncing Gingrich’s leadership is a devastating indictment of this presidential wannabe. To know him, to work closely with him, is to loathe him. That is a surefire formula for failure in a political culture that ends up being so distracted by concerns that President Barack Obama is too much the Mr. Spock, not warm and fuzzy enough. Most Republicans seem to understand, moreover, that likability and stability are only some of the personality traits Gingrich lacks, despite his obvious intelligence and vision.

Especially when compared to his opponents, Mitt Romney represents the Eisenhower Republicans, the patrician Republicans, the business Republicans, who have long been the backbone of the Republican Party. In the Reagan administration, James A. Baker III represented that important sensibility and stabilizer in the Republican identity, and George H.W. Bush was also from that stream. But Bush’s son, George W. Bush, understood back in 2000 that being a patrician business Republican was not enough. In the modern era, you need a little more ideological bite. Moreover, in a recession-burdened America, while some do hope for a businesstype to help revive and protect the American economy, in a political year when rage against the “1 percent” has become a defining cliché, a vulture, er, venture capitalist with a quarter of a billion dollars stashed in many banks in the US and the Caymans may not quite be the go-to guy.

Romney remains the strongest candidate in the field, especially because of the Republican impulse to select the established candidate who appears to be the rightful heir. Romney has to hope that he does not become the Walter Mondale of 2012, the “inevitable” candidate who wins the nomination but never quite wins the hearts and minds of his own party. Instead, Romney’s people should be hoping for a bit of 2008 redux. That year, a somewhat stiff, occasionally awkward, inexperienced candidate named Barack Obama became a better and better candidate the more adversity he experienced during the primaries. Hillary Clinton’s opposition brought out the best in Obama — a point many forget but the many campaign books about 2008 emphasize. Furthermore, the harshest attacks against Obama came out in the primaries, especially the revelations about his close relationship with his demagogic, unpatriotic preacher, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. By the time the general election came, Obama had been inoculated from damage — Americans were bored by Republican charges they had already heard. Romney has to hope that the worst of his tax returns and Bain Capital stories have already been exposed and will soon bore voters, who have the attention span of a child with ADD at the end of a long school day.

Meanwhile, to journalists’ delight, the Republican nomination battle is now guaranteed to drag out into the spring. By February, former senator Rick Santorum was enjoying his Paul Tsongas-Bill Bradley moment. Remember them? Each of these former senators enjoyed a momentary surge when running against a flawed candidate on the Democratic side. In 1992, Tsongas was the Massachusetts media darling who had a brief moment in the political sun, attacking Bill Clinton as a “pander bear,” with pander sounding like “panda,” thanks to Tsongas’s Massachusetts accent. New Jersey senator Bill Bradley was the former New York Knicks basketball star and Rhodes Gil Troy Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney go head-to-head in the Republican primary debate in Florida on January 25. Though Romney easily won Florida, his losses in February’s caucus states meant the race would continue at least until Super Tuesday on March 6. CP Photo POLICY OPTIONS MARCH 2012 77 Scholar who distracted voters momentarily when Al Gore ran as the inevitable Democratic candidate in 2000. Both Tsongas and Bradley proved more popular with reporters than with voters, particularly by prolonging campaigns threatening to end too quickly, given the media’s need for an extended fight.

After winning three caucuses and minor elections in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado in early February, Santorum proved useful to reporters anxious to drag out the Republican campaign, even though most reporters abhorred his cultural conservatism. Tsongas and Bradley were high priests serving in the church we could call “Our Lady of the Principled, Priggish Politician,” appearing to waft above the normal political fray. That gave their fleeting surges particular appeal, as they lorded over their more worldly rivals, feeding mass American fantasies about politics as a higher calling. Santorum lacked that appeal — or a particular popularity with reporters, many of whom viewed him as a puritanical prig. His Catholicism appealed to the bigoted Evangelical Protestants who would rather have a Catholic than a Mormon president.

Much has been written about the bigotry from the right against Mormonism, but in this campaign, that bigotry was also being reinforced from the left. The unfair obstacles Mitt Romney faced due to prejudice against his community of faith did not trigger a backlash of support from the left or the right. On the right, the lack of indignation reflected the deep prejudice among the bigots who view Mormonism as an abomination not a Christian denomination. On the left, it reflected a pro-Obama protectiveness laced with an instinctive anti-Mormonism.

A recent “room for debate” among New York Times guest bloggers asking “What is it about Mormons?” reflected the kind of static Romney endures from those who would normally be primed to see the underlying hostility against him as a civil rights issue. The five experts the Times solicited about Mormonism were unflattering, to one degree or another. Sally Denton, the author of The Money and the Power, wrote about the Church’s male-dominated world with the tag line: “Given that Mitt Romney is a high church official and not just a member, voters are right to be circumspect.” Jana Riess, who wrote Flunking Sainthood, asked “Can a Candidate Be Too Perfect?” explaining that “voters want someone they can identify with. Historically, that does not bode well for Mormons.” Ian Williams, a refugee from Mormonism, said in “It May Look Good on Paper.” “But some of us who have experienced the Mormon life firsthand would rather choose a messy, colorful America.” And “There Is a Dark Side to Mormonism,” warned another author, Jane Barnes, saying, “When it comes to the social agenda, the Mormon Church does not respect separation of church and state.” Finally, readers learned about “Mormons’ Double Legacy” from Professor Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, who said, “Just as Mormons seem to be ideal Americans, they also provoke typically American fears.”

In fairness, the short entries raised issues that were shaping the contemporary conversation about the leading Republican candidate. But it is instructive to substitute the words “Mormon” and “Mormonism” in judging whether the overall impression provided enlightenment or bred bigotry. I doubt the Times would have run a debate asking: “What is it about” blacks or gays or Catholics or women or Jews? Would it have been acceptable to write in 1960 about John Kennedy’s Catholicism: given that the Kennedys have met the Pope and support the Church, “voters are right to be circumspect,” or in 2000 during Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman’s stint as the first Jew on a major ticket, that “there is a dark side” to Judaism? How about an analysis in 2008 that “just as” African-Americans like Barack Obama “seem to be ideal Americans, they also provoke typically American fears?”

Standing alone, each of these articles analyzed the fears of others. But their cumulative effect together, with no full-throated defence of Mormonism, created this noxious impression. Mitt Romney was careful to downplay his religion, emphasizing that he is a Jesus-believing, God-fearing Christian. Given what he experienced left and right, it seemed like the shrewd but unfortunate strategy to follow. Still, this was yet another moment when Republicans yearning for Reaganesque leadership realized how unfortunate it was to be stuck with Romney. Romney lacked that flair, that ability to laugh off bigotry or to end the attacks with one well-delivered rhetorical knockout punch. That left Republicans feeling hungry, not satisfied, yearning for the builder of a Reaganesque coalition and hoping for a Reaganesque leader who could calm their fears, take on Obama and lead America with the aplomb their hero frequently showed.

Photo: Shutterstock

Gil Troy
Contributing Writer Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University and visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. He is the author of, among other books, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s.

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