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The Wild Card

The summer before last, I posted a series of pieces on www.biggovernment.com, exploring the nature of executive temperament and Barack Obama’s lack thereof; examining the virtues of Bobby Jindal, Chris Christie, and Mitch Daniels in this particular; and, finally, suggesting that executive temperament is not enough: that, in the absence of a firm embrace of first principles, it is positively dangerous.

When, in The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton observed that “energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government,” I remarked, he quite rightly used the indefinite, as opposed to the definite, article. “What Hamilton had in mind,” I explained,

when he insisted on the necessity that the new nation be endowed with an energetic executive is the fact that a government in which the laws are not vigorously executed and in which emergencies are not confronted and handled with decision and dispatch is hardly a government at all. He knew that wisdom, prudence, and moderation are also required for a government to be good, and he recognized as well that the ends and sphere proper to government are limited. He was no less committed to the principles of the Declaration of Independence than was the man who had drafted it.

alexander_hamilton_portrait_by_john_trumbull_1806.jpgHamilton was also aware that Julius Caesar and Oliver Cromwell had been energetic executives, and to their number we can now add such luminaries as Napoleon Bonaparte, Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot. The executive temperament necessary for good government is not, alas, sufficient to guarantee its achievement.

If, as I argued in mid-June, it is now abundantly clear that Barack Obama lacks the temperament requisite in an executive, if, as I contended, he is inclined to shirk responsibility, shift the blame, dither, and punt, his administration is beyond question a government insufficient for our needs. This does not mean, however, that – merely by demonstrating energy, vigor, and dispatch in shouldering the responsibilities of executive office – Bobby Jindal of Lousiana, Chris Christie of New Jersey, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Jeb Bush of Florida, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, or any of the other potential presidential aspirants in the Republican Party who have been effective governors has demonstrated that he possesses all of the qualities called for in the grave crisis we now face.

All of the individuals I have named are impressive – as are, for example, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. The moment has not yet arrived, however, for a thorough assessment of the qualities and outlook of each. There will be plenty of time for sorting through the candidates after the midterm elections.

At this point, however, it is proper that I reiterate the conclusion that I argued for in a series of posts – here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here – in the course of the last year: to wit, that we live in a time of grave danger and of unprecedented opportunity; that, by means of his healthcare reform and the other measures he has pursued, Barack Obama has both threatened what is left of our liberty and offered us the chance to recover it in full; that, by exposing the tyrannical character of the liberal, progressive project and by outing nearly all of his fellow Democrats, he has opened up for us the possibility of a return to first principles; and that, with the proper leadership and focus, we really can effect a realignment, roll back the administrative state, and escape what, with a nod to Alexis de Tocqueville, I called, in my recent book, soft despotism.

It is also now requisite that I say something about the other attributes, apart from executive temperament, that will be required if we are to wrest ourselves from modern democracy’s soft despotic drift.

Here is what is needed and what is likely to be sorely lacking in some, if not most, of the Republican presidential aspirants: an adequate understanding of the underpinnings of American republicanism, a firm and principled commitment to limited government, and a determination to put the limits back in place.

Most of the Republicans elected to the Presidency in the last century have been what I call “business” or “managerial progressives.” I do not doubt that Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush were preferable to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Baines Johnson, William Jefferson Clinton, and Barack Obama. But there is no indication that any of them understood what was at stake. They differed from their Democratic opponents in being considerably more favorable to business and the free market and considerably more hostile to tax increases, but – if there was no obvious economic price – they, too, welcomed government intrusiveness whenever they thought that encroaching upon our prerogatives or those of the state and local governments was necessary if they were to do us what they took to be good.

Here lies the danger. What is needed is a repeal of Obamacare; what is needed is a paring back and even a gradual elimination of the welfare state; what is needed is a constitutional amendment banning unfunded and partially-funded  mandates; what is needed is a withdrawal of the federal government from spheres (such as education) left by the Constitution to individuals and the states; what is needed is a reinvigoration of local and state governments; what is need is a new spirit in Washington.

What we are likely to get, however, if we do not watch out, is more of the same.

Mitt_Romney2.jpgI can easily imagine a Republican President thinking that what is really needed is what FDR called “enlightened administration.” I can easily imagine the Republicans thinking that Obamacare would be just fine if they were in charge. That is the spirit that guided Hoover, Nixon, Bush père, and Bush fils, and I fear that most of the men with gubernatorial experience whom I mentioned above would fit right in with these former Presidents. If our primary problem were Obama’s incompetence, that would be fine. Unfortunately, our problems go deeper – and if the Republicans muff the golden opportunity now in the offing, the game may be up.

I quote this argument at length because it articulates the presumptions underlying my assessment of the various aspirants, real or imagined, to the Republican presidential nomination. It explains why, writing later on Ricochet, I encouraged Governor Daniels to enter the race and criticized a number of his stands and why, when he chose not to run, I expressed misgivings about the likelihood that Mitt Romney would be the nominee and pulled out all stops to get Congressman Paul Ryan to run. In my judgment, Daniels is a proven executive with a spectacular record who had a first-hand knowledge of the federal budget; Governor Romney is not only a political chameleon, but also managerial progressive who does not understand, much less respect, the proper limits to the government’s reach; and Ryan, though he has never held executive office, has displayed executive temperament in boldly proposing legislation aimed at staving off the immediate fiscal and economic crisis we face and at moving carefully and prudently in the direction of paring back the administrative entitlements state, and in rallying the members of his party in the House of Representatives behind that legislation. He has, moreover, stood up to and outdebated the current President of the United States.

But, of course, Governor Daniels chose not to run, and Congressman Ryan followed suit. So, in later posts, I tried to separate the clowns from the contenders and took a look at Michele Bachman, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain – all of whom I eventually found grievously wanting. I touched on Newt Gingrich here, for example, and here but was dismissive:

His intelligence cannot be doubted. But his personal life cannot be defended, and he is a loose cannon – apt to line up with the likes of Nancy Pelosi on a fashionable issue like global warming. More to the point, he is a managerial progressive. Like Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, and both Bush père and Bush fils, he is always on the outlook for something additional that the federal government can do. He is in no position to articulate the case for limited government.

I thought the former Speaker of the House a dinosaur whose day was done. It never crossed my mind that he would become a contender, and I was not alone. Apparently, the Obama campaign has done not a whit of opposition research on Gingrich because those involved were as dismissive as I was. What we forgot was that in the world of the blind the one-eyed man is king.

The reasons for Newt Gingrich’s rise are fairly simple. For reasons that I have spelled out earlier, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul have no business being in the race, and, thanks to the debates, everyone now knows it. Rick Perry, who has an impressive record as Governor of Texas, blotted his copybook in the first few debates in such a way as to make one doubt whether he is or ever will be sufficiently well-informed about things outside Texas. Most prospective Republican voters share my misgivings about Romney, and Gingrich has demonstrated that he has a mastery of the requisite detail. Moreover, in the debates, he has treated his rivals with respect; he has repeatedly unmasked the buffoons asking questions as buffoons; he has stayed within the time allotted; he has hammered Obama; and he has frequently said things that cause one to stop and think. Where he has gone astray in the past – briefly embracing the individual mandate in 1993 and 1994, lining up with Nancy Pelosi on global warming, and breaking his wedding vows, etc.– he acknowledges folly and fault. It is refreshing to hear a Presidential candidate describe a stance he has taken in the past as positively stupid. The new Newt is not a loose cannon. He is neither conceited nor arrogant. He evidences a certain irony about himself and his conduct in the past. Or so, at least, it seems.

NewtGingrich2.jpgWe need also consider Gingrich’s accomplishments in the past. He was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; attended Emory University as an undergraduate; and did an M. A. and a Ph.D. in history at Tulane before taking up a teaching post at West Georgia College. He ran for Congress a couple of times in Georgia’s Sixth District against an entrenched incumbent who usually faced no opposition. He lost by a small margin on both occasions and then won in November, 1978. He held the seat through ten more elections and resigned in January, 1999. At least at that level, Gingrich is a seasoned campaigner.

More to the point, in 1981, in Congress, Gingrich was not, like most Republicans, content with being a member of the minority. He founded the Congressional Military Reform Caucus and the Congressional Aviation and Space Caucus; in 1983, he co-founded the Conservative Opportunity Society – much to the delight of Ronald Reagan. And in 1988, citing ethics violations, he spearheaded a successful effort to topple Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Wright. A year later, he became Minority Whip and initiated an effort to make the Republican Party what he called “a much more aggressive, activist party.” In 1994, he helped draft the Contract with America , persuaded his fellow Republicans in the House to sign on, nationalized the election, and led them to a victory in the midterm elections in which they gained fifty-four seats and secured control of the House of Representatives for the first time in forty years. Even this observation understates Gingrich’s achievement. For, in the sixty-four years following the stock market crash of 1929, the Republicans won the House twice – in 1946 and in 1952. On both occasions, they lost control two years thereafter. In the aftermath of 1994, however, the Republicans held onto the House for twelve years. If Ronald Reagan began the Republican revolution in 1980, it was Newt Gingrich who solidified it.

For four years, Newt Gingrich served as Speaker of the House. In his first hundred days in office, he brought each of the ten items mentioned in the Contract with America to a vote in that chamber as promised. In 1996, on his third try, he managed to get President William Jefferson Clinton to agree to welfare reform. In 1997, he secured the passage of the largest capital gains tax cut in American history, and he persuaded President Clinton to sign it. In 1998 and 1999, he managed to get Clinton to cooperate with him in balancing the budget, which was achieved in the latter year.

NewtGingrich3.jpgEventually, to be sure, Gingrich’s dominion came a-cropper. In his struggle to force President Clinton to go along with the Republican minority in cutting the federal budget, there was a partial government shutdown; the liberal press managed to pin the blame on Gingrich (though it was a direct consequence of vetoes by Clinton); and he became highly unpopular. In time, moreover, he was sanctioned by the House for ethics violations; and, in the summer of 1997, there was an abortive attempt on the part of John Boehner and others to oust him from the Speakership. Shortly after the Republicans lost ground in the 1998 midterm elections, which took place on the eve of President Clinton’s impeachment, Gingrich resigned from Congress. It had been a very wild ride. His hegemony was widely resented in his own party; and, when Dennis Hastert replaced him as Speaker, the Republicans turned away from reform and became an old-fashioned pork-barrel party on the Democratic model.

Gingrich can certainly be faulted – for arrogance, for vanity, for negligence with regard to the ethical rules supposed to govern the conduct of members of Congress, and for marital infidelity. As Speaker, he was not apt to seek or accept advice. One of his former Congressional allies told me a couple of months ago, “The trouble with Newt was that you never knew what he was going to do.” He was also erratic. In one speech, he could articulate the case for limited government from the perspective of the Founding Fathers. Three days later, you could hear him touting all that government could do. Consistency was not his watchword. He was and is in love with technology; he was and is always looking for technological fixes; and he has often displayed the instincts of the social engineer. Indeed, in his years out of office, he touted one piece of social engineering after another. But whatever else he may have been, Newt Gingrich instigated a revolution in our national affairs, and for one brief, glorious moment, he turned what had been a hapless, hopeless party of patronage into a party of principle. He was a budget-balancer, a friend to low taxes, and a critic of the welfare state; and he brought to the Republicans in the House a measure of discipline not seen before or after his brief reign.

Almost all of the pundits – major and minor – have weighed in against Newt Gingrich – David Brooks, George Will, Peggy Noonan, Charles Krauthammer, Ramesh Ponnuru, Jennifer Rubin, Ron Radosh , Yuval Levin (I could go on; the list is long and getting longer every day). He is, they say, conceited, arrogant, vain, erratic, vulnerable to attack in the general election, and likely on a whim to lead us over the cliff. I am inclined to take what they say seriously. Newt Gingrich is a wild card. The fact that his own staff gave up on him and resigned on the eve of this campaign is a sign that, his appearances in the debates notwithstanding, the new Newt is not all that different from the old. If I had to vote today on the Republican nomination, I would vote against Gingrich and for Romney – not because I think all that highly of Romney (for I do not) but because he is notably steadier than his rival.

I write these words. Then, I read them and want to take two steps back – for Newt Gingrich, as those who have watched the debates have generally noticed, is far more formidable than Mitt Romney.

mitt_romney.jpgThe latter has won one election in his life, and he did not stand a chance for re-election. He is careful, steady, methodical, politically timid, and easy to rattle. Ted Kennedy did just that, and Barack Obama may well do it again. Moreover, Romney is brittle, as the Bret Baier interview revealed, and he does not adjust quickly and gracefully to changing circumstances. The jury was in on anthropogenic global warming by December, 2009, but, as late as June, 2011, Romney was still spouting the same old nonsense. It was as if no news was news for him until The New York Times ratified it.

It was evident long ago that a commitment to the individual mandate and Romneycare could cripple a Presidential campaign. But once Romney settled on federalism as a gimmick for arguing that we should ignore his signature achievement as Governor, he stuck rigidly to it. The man is politically tone deaf –as the graduating seniors at Hillsdale College learned in 2007 and the attendees at the National Review banquet learned not long thereafter. Like many engineers and technocrats, he is not adept at sizing up an audience and making the right pitch. In consequence, he sometimes comes across as a robot. He is the sort of politician who could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He did so in 1994 and 2008.

NewtGingrich4.jpgGingrich is, as I said, formidable. He took a pathetic, me-too caucus lead by the hapless Robert Michel, and he turned it around. He cornered the President of the United States and for a time made him do his bidding. But, of course, he also crashed and burned – and we cannot ignore the possibility (some would say, likelihood) that he would do so again.

It could be, however, that the peculiar time in which we live requires audacity and a man of formidable intellect, unsurpassed self-confidence, and uneven, erratic temperament with an impressive record of uniting his party around a set of political principles and of leading it to victory in a tense, divisive national election. On Thursday, Steve Hayward posted a piece on National Review Online, comparing the general take on Newt Gingrich today with that on Winston Churchill in 1940 when he became Prime Minister. It is sobering and reminds us how easily we human beings can misjudge – and Ramesh Ponnuru’s response is lame. There really is something to think about here.

I am very glad that the hour is not late – that we have months in which to make up our minds and that there will be debate after debate, caucus after caucus, and primary after primary in which the candidates will be tested. In my judgment, none of them is even remotely close to being ideal, and no one currently in the race deserves our active support. In stating that — if I had to decide today between the contenders Romney, Perry, and Gingrich, I would choose Romney — I reserve the right to change my mind as I learn more about them. Changing my mind on occasion is, after all, the only real proof that I have one.