Friday, January 20, 2012

Preferring the Chaff to the Wheat

As I write this Saturday morning, news reports suggest that Newt Gingrich is surging in the South Carolina polls and now has a good chance to defeat Mitt Romney in today's primary. A win by Speaker Gingrich will delay what I expect will be the ultimate coronation of Governor Romney as the standard bearer for the GOP in November's general election.

That Governor Romney is having difficulty bringing closure to the process is not particularly surprising. He strikes me as a decent man who is likely more moderate in his views than he is allowed to acknowledge in Republican primary campaigns. However, despite all the time he has spent wooing various electorates for the past 20 years, he also strikes me as uncomfortable with retail politics and the necessity for personal interaction with voters in the early contests. As a result, he comes off as a bit insincere and too programmed. I suspect he's neither, but I am giving it more thought than the average South Carolina voter.

Speaker Gingrich's latest resurgence is similarly unremarkable. It is, however, disconcerting. As if he was running for debater-in-chief, Speaker Gingrich resuscitated his gasping campaign by attacking the "liberal media" in Thursday night's CNN-sponsored debate. The Speaker feigned righteous indigence when asked by the debate moderator if he wished to comment on his former wife's widely reported lurid descriptions of Mr. Gingrich's moral shortcomings. Effectively claiming attempted character assassination by the moderator for raising the issue at the outset of a Presidential debate, the Speaker used it as an example of how the media would do whatever it could to prevent conservatives from gaining widespread acceptance among the electorate.

First of all, I believe moderator John King's question was a fair one. The candidates were receiving free publicity by appearing on a debate hosted by the Cable News Network. Like it or not, the "open marriage request" story was news, replacing Rick Perry's withdrawal from the race as the big news of the day. Everyone in the debate audience, everyone watching CNN and everyone listening to the debate on the radio was wondering how Speaker would address his ex's condemnation.

South Carolina voters might not approve of multiple marriages spawned by serial mistresses, but they are even more concerned by the "liberal elite's" trashing of candidates who just want to return to those good old days in Mayberry when Opie was a boy and all was right with the world. Playing on this, Speaker Gingrich (watch his hands as they never leave his wrists) turned the fairly benign question (Do you want to comment on the allegations?) into an example of disrespect and evidence that the press was stacking the deck to assure President Obama's re-election.

For the most part, the Speaker just ignored the substance of his ex-wife's lurid allegations. Assuming that they are true (which the Speaker ultimately denied as part of his diatribe), they are indefensible when wooing the support of conservative evangelical Christian voters needed to succeed in South Carolina. As my grandfather advised me many years ago, when the law is against you, argue the facts. When the facts are against you, argue the law. And when the law and the facts are against you, argue like Hell. Speaker Gingrich argued like Hell.

What is disconcerting to me is I believe voters should be more concerned than they are when a politician avoids uncomfortable scrutiny, whatever the issue, by aggressively attacking the source and appealing to the audience's basest instincts.

For the record, in today's world, the railroading of cultural norms by a liberal media is a myth. There is so much information broadly distributed by every element of the political spectrum that it is nonsense to suggest that any one mindset can unaccountably and dishonestly hold sway. Would Mr. Gingrich have us believe that his friends at FOX News and the Wall Street Journal have lost their voice or their interest in challenging more moderate points of view? Of course not and the Speaker's complaints about being attacked on Thursday night were patently false.

Nonetheless, the voters like a fight and a feisty fighter. The substance and veracity of what is being said apparently matters less than the fact that it's being said at all. Scapegoating a "liberal elite" might play well in South Carolina, and the visceral reaction of the South Carolina electorate might be enough to win a primary election. I think our country is better served by earning support through cogent argument and persuasion and by avoiding the constant efforts to widen cultural chasms that form the basis for the gridlock killing our democracy.

1 comment:

Charles Leck said...

Isn't there a chance, Sam, that Gingrich will sell himself in FL and others places with his quite extraordinary verbal skills? I personally get a terrible imagine in mind when I tried to picture him as President of the U.S.. At the same time, I think, Romney is beginning to look weak and overwhelmed by both Santorum and Gingrich in the debates. Your blog was really excellent and thought provoking.Good stuff!