Back in September Right Turn chided certain Republican presidential candidates for appealing to ignorance, glorifying contempt not just for liberal elites but for intellectualism in general. The good news is that voters are rejecting ignorance. The bad news is that they may have forgotten about character.
Kathleen Parker is wrong when she writes that the GOP embraced ignorance. (“Call it the Palinization of the GOP, in which the least informed earns the loudest applause.”) In fact, Republicans very quickly have come to their senses, having sniffed out Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s lack of policy chops and Herman Cain’s appalling ignorance. Parker missed apparently Perry’s plunge in the polls and the beginning of a similar decline for Cain. In the polling average of RealClearPolitics, Perry has gone from over 31 percent to about 8 percent. Cain has gone from a high of 26 percent to less than 19 percent. Cain’s decline was likely stalled by a rally-round-Cain phenomenon in reaction to the sexual harassment claims that some conservatives think was a nefarious plot to bring down a black conservative.
Rich Lowry is up to speed. He writes: “Republicans tend to be defensive of their own when they are criticized for substantive superficiality. They remember that ‘they said the same thing about Ronald Reagan.’ But Reagan was a two-term governor and repeat presidential candidate who had exhaustively thought through his views. He proved it’s possible to be fearlessly anti-establishment and well informed at the same time.” More and more voters seem to be agreeing.
Now atop the polls are Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Neither appeals to ignorance. Neither lacks views on the array of issues facing the country. Neither answers questions with, “My advisers will tell me what to do.” Both have excelled in the debates where verbal acuity and intellectual quickness are prized. Both are widely traveled and interested in foreign policy.
In short, the ignorant candidates are faring poorly. The wonks are in ascendancy.
But now the challenge for Republican voters is whether temperament and character matter. Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America e-mails me: “The one good thing that came from the Herman Cain saga is that it started a discussion on integrity and the importance of character in our elected officials. We said when Bill Clinton was president that ‘character counts,’ and we still believe that.” She add: “Skeletons rarely stay in their closet and personal indiscretions always cause pain to the people involved. George Washington said, ‘A good moral character is the first essential in a man.’ American women still agree. A good moral compass is essential in leadership not just knowledge or business acumen. “
And that of course brings us to Newt Gingrich. This is a man who has set up an entire Web site to assure people like Penny Nance that he is “no Bill Clinton.” His rationale is that Clinton was worse since he perjured himself. Quite a campaign slogan: “Never committed perjury!” There are an extraordinary number of issues that require a defense.
The Gingrich character problems fall into roughly four categories. First is the marital infidelity. Some voters think it’s relevant that he’s thrice married and recklessly committed adultery while condemning Clinton’s behavior. That said, this might be the least of his worries. Nance observes that “our members also understand the idea of redemption. As Christians we accept the notion of a sinful nature and the need for repentance and redemption. I know that Newt admitted his failures in a March 2007 interview with Christian broadcaster James Dobson and embraced a resolution to be a different man in the future.” She credits Gingrich with “courage” and says that if “voters judge him to be sincere then I think he has a bright future.” Gingrich’s other character flaws are less easily resolved.
The second category of problems falls under the general heading of hypocrisy. He lectured about the failings of Washington, and yet he benefited lavishly from it. He took money from everyone from Freddie Mac to the ethanol lobby to Big Pharm while making the argument for an interventionist government, yet he calls President Obama a “socialist.” Really, a crony capitalist calling a statist liberal names is a bit too much to bear.
The next category of Gingrich ailments concerns the total lack of personal discipline. He considers every thought that pops into his head brilliant and worthy of our consideration. (His latest is a jaw-dropper touting the repeal of child labor laws.) It made his speakership chaotic as he flitted from topic to topic, spouting gaffes as he went. Those Republican congressmen who lived through it will shudder or roll their eyes when asked about Gingrich’s leadership skills. He has so many thoughts but is deficient in thoughtfulness. And it is the same lack of discipline, one can imagine, which caused him to ring up a six-figure tab at Tiffany’s. In sum, he denies himself virtually nothing.
And finally, the last category of concern is a problem with the truth. In Gingrich’s case it may not be lying per se. But it stems from his extraordinary ability to reconstruct reality to cast himself as the hero. (It’s so acute that it is now the stuff of parody.) Freddie Mac is once again the perfect example. He’s convinced himself he was a “historian” or an “ideas man” because once a month he spoke to Freddie Mac executives. This is delusional, of course. He was being paid to shut up about Freddie Mac’s failings and assuage Republicans’ concern about the taxpayer-backed lender. Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. explains: “Mr. Gingrich was being paid so the world would know he was on Freddie’s payroll, so he wouldn’t be tempted to insert his voluble self on the other side of the soon-to-be roiling debate about Freddie’s future.” But Gingrich tells us otherwise, and probably believes it.
So we return to the question that may now be at the heart of the GOP primary: Does character, temperament and personal rectitude matter to conservatives? Certain conservative voices who claim to be speaking on behalf of the entire conservative movement have become expert in testing for ideological purity. Not only is this foolhardy and self-defeating, but it suggests that a list of positions on issues is all that matters. But we’ve learned from the Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton presidencies how critical are other matters. A dishonest, self-deluded, undisciplined and personally disloyal (what else is infidelity?) president is a nightmare. If you doubt it, just recall the Gingrich speakership years.
Republicans seem to have rejected know-nothingness. Now we will see if they insist on not only knowledge but character in a standard bearer for their party and the potential leader of the Free World.