This guest post is provided courtesy of my husband Peter, a social studies/math teacher at a charter high school in Central California. He is in his 18th year of teaching in both public and private schools in Texas, Arizona, and California; he is also in his third official year of homeschooling. He is a lifelong Catholic, and a talented mineral collector and family historian/genealogist.
This post is pulled from an ongoing e-mail conversation Peter is having with a conservative colleague:
… I totally agree that unelected judges should not be the policymakers that they have made themselves to be. However, I also agree with those who argue that Gingrich’s solution to this is not only dangerous in itself from the perspective of the Constitution (essentially, I think he hopes to correct one error by committing the opposite error, so to speak, with effects that are possibly worse than the status quo), but can easily backfire both as an electoral tactic and as a remedy to bad judiciating. To take the measures he proposes as a means of correcting judicial activism is to make majority rule, as represented in the legislature, more powerful even than the Framers intended. Majorities can be very irrational, capricious, and rapidly-changing, and the result of giving them so much power will likely be bad law – and lots of it. The Ninth Circuit has made plenty of idiotic decisions, that is true, but I fail to see how the solution can be to subject the courts to the whims of legislators who, in themselves, may be even more idiotic. Personally, I don’t think that most Americans have a problem with judicial activism in principle. Most people, I believe, support activism when it is manifested in decisions of which they approve, but then oppose activism when it takes the form of rulings that they themselves oppose.
As for Gingrich’s chances, I still maintain that my “skepticism” is more justified. America is a much different place now than it was in 1980. The demographics of the country have been changing in a way that are making it less friendly to traditional Republicans. The nation’s minority populations have grown substantially since 1980, and the GOP still hasn’t been all that successful (some high-profile minority Republicans notwithstanding) at pulling those groups away from their traditional Democratic loyalties. And, today‘s younger voters are the most socially-liberal voting bloc in our nation’s history. While their turnout rates are often low, a Democratic candidate who can get them out to vote can do a lot of damage to the GOP (as Obama did in 2008). More traditionally-minded, conservative voters tend to be older – the voters of the “G.I. Generation” and the “Silent Generation” – but those generations are in the process of passing away. In 1980, a candidate like Reagan could appeal to “moderates” because his social conservatism didn’t clash all that much with the majority of Americans. It was his economic conservatism that was labeled by some as “radical” for the time because of its contrast with the New Deal/Great Society regime of ideas, but socially he was still quite “mainstream” (of course, so was Nixon in his social policy philosophy, which frustrated and angered the hippie voters who wanted to believe that Nixon’s “Silent Majority” didn’t actually exist). In 1980, immigration wasn’t the polarizing issue that it is today, and the idea that sizeable majorities of Americans in many parts of the nation would support legal gay marriage would have been unthinkable. America in 1980 was questioning the validity of economic ideas that it had bought into years earlier, but, despite the nefarious spread of the Sexual Revolution, it was still primarily a very conservative place in terms of social values.
But that is why I believe that the 1980 formula will fail in 2012. America is no longer the same place. Rush Limbaugh likes to claim as one of his basic assumptions that most Americans are hard-working, common-sense people who value conservative principles, but I tend not to believe that this is so true any more. Maybe it’s still largely true in rural America or white, middle-class America, but our culture has progressively become one in which people evaluate leaders and policy not according to lofty principles (however valuable those may be), but according to what they believe will give them the most short-term benefit or gratification. How many people voted for Obama because it made them feel good to vote for someone of his age and background? Here is an important point to make. It seems to me that the Republican Party, and its presidential candidates, have presumed that Americans, since Obama’s election, have “seen the light” regarding the competing ideologies, and that this will naturally translate into further GOP victories and perhaps the start of GOP dominance. Obama’s failures, they believe, have made this picture so clear to Americans that the thought of future Democratic dominance is hard to imagine. However, I consider this to be incredibly myopic and dangerous for the GOP. Have Americans learned a profound and lasting lesson about conservatism as opposed to liberalism by watching the floundering of the Obama/Pelosi/Reid folks? I see no reason to believe so. As I said, Americans today think more in terms of short-term benefit and gratification, and the tide against the Democrats is largely the result of a poor economy that the Dems have mishandled. Those same Americans could just as easily swing against Republicans at any time – and, in fact, there is polling evidence that a number of House Republicans could be in trouble in 2012 due to a likely backlash against incumbents that could be more intense than in 2010 (especially if we don’t get a continuation of that payroll tax cut!).
So, what Republicans are really counting on as a means of securing victory next year is NOT the large-scale “conversion” of Americans to the Republican way of thinking, but, rather, large-scale frustration with Obama. Because they have not done well in articulating a message that America of 2011 will buy in principle, they are having to hope that Americans will be so disgusted with Obama that they will vote for virtually any Republican as an alternative. But, history does show that incumbents – even apparently unpopular ones – enjoy a significant advantage, and that a challenger must be more than the “equal” of the incumbent in order to win. There are plenty of people with a vested interest in a continued Obama presidency, and the size of his campaign war chest so far testifies to the fact that there are plenty of people out there who are desperate to see him keep office. And, he still has the basic outline of a campaign organization in place form 2008 that was quite successful in getting out the (liberal) youth vote and appealing to the tech-oriented twenty- and thirty-somethings. If the GOP nominates someone about whom voters feel unenthused, then the Republicans won’t get out enough of “their” voters (or the independents, who may just find the entire race distasteful and stay home) to win, whatever the polls right now may say.
Unfortunately, this is where I believe the GOP may be headed. Romney may be the most palatable of the major candidates to the independents, and I do believe that he would stand the best chance of beating Obama, but we both know that he is rather uninspiring to much of the Republican base. That being said, hard-core conservatives who don’t trust Romney will still probably show up to vote for him just because he’s preferable to Obama. A Gingrich nomination, however, could end up being a disaster for the Republicans. First, he’s not Reagan. While he likes to harken back to Reagan and draw plenty of parallels between himself and the Gipper, the differences are significant. Philosophically, Gingrich is very articulate but does not show nearly as much “street sense”. Reagan phrased his ideas in a way that ordinary Americans as well as people in positions of influence could buy. Gingrich still seems determined to say things that will alienate key voters (I refer here back to my point from several weeks ago regarding Gingrich’s comments on unemployment) or cause confusion and consternation (such as his recent comments on the judiciary). Reagan took strong positions without painting obvious targets on himself, but Gingrich seems to be adding targets the more he speaks. His comments will likely to create even further difficulty for Republicans who are looking for someone to support right now with some enthusiasm. Second, Gingrich just doesn’t have a persona that people will find appealing. Reagan was able to come across as the understanding, strong, and compassionate “grandfather” figure, but Gingrich so easily comes across as a crotchety, arrogant guy. While this may not be a problem with die-hard Republicans, it will be a problem with the ordinary, less-partisan Americans who will often vote for who seems like a nicer person (recall that Al Gore’s lead over Bush in 2000 only disappeared following the TV debate in which Gore acted like an obvious jerk). Third, I would argue that Gingrich’s recent rise in the polls (prior to the decline he has now begun to show) is not so much the result of people embracing him as a great candidate as the result of Republicans hoping that SOMEBODY will turn out to be a viable alternative to Romney (a role that Bachmann, Perry, and Cain were all previously looked to by those voters to fulfill). Finally, as I said above, Gingrich’s philosophy just isn’t going to play well with so many voters today, for the reasons I explained above. There are too many voters today who are going to find too many of his ideas “uncomfortable” or “dangerous” – even if that wouldn’t have been the case in 1980. Gingrich is going to hand the Obama campaign an arsenal of ammunition to use against him, words that can be fashioned into all sorts of campaign ads to frighten away the voter who isn’t a loyal, devout Republican. And, in this economic climate, any Republican will have to appeal to the economically-suffering voter in order to win, and everything I have heard from Newt so far indicates that he isn’t really interested in reaching out to them. Those voters aren’t going to care about lofty principles – rather, they want greater job security or the security of their unemployment benefits if their jobs should go away. Voters who are more socially-liberal are going to find Gingrich anathema. Gingrich simply isn’t “Reagan Lite”, and “Reagan Lite” probably wouldn’t do as well today as in 1980 anyways. It is true that Dole and McCain didn’t win despite their theoretical appeal to moderates, but there were, of course, other reasons why each lost. They both had big-time personal-appeal issues, and the state of the economy was unfriendly to both.
All of that being said, I see a rocky nomination road for the Republicans. I’m not placing much stock in any of the polls right now (they were INCREDIBLY inaccurate heading into the 2008 caucus/primary season, of course). I am guessing that Ron Paul is going to make more of a splash than most of us realize. Enthusiasm for Gingrich has been eroding since his post-Cain rise, and that enthusiasm doesn’t seem to be transferring to any of the other Republican candidates. Ron Paul, however, has built a grass-roots organization that I tend to think has gone largely unnoticed, but his supporters are probably more fanatically devoted than the supporters of any other candidate. If voters who sour on Gingrich head in his direction, it is quite possible that he will be pulling more than his usual 10%, especially if overall turnout in some of the caucuses/primaries is low. I agree with you in that a brokered convention is a possibility, but that would probably just advertise to America most emphatically that the current slate of Republican candidates just isn’t that impressive, which can only hurt their image heading into the general race. Of course, some commentators have argued that, for this reason, a brokered convention might very well pick a candidate who currently is not in the race at all, and that might be just what the GOP has to do in that situation to save face and get a “fresh start” against Obama. I have heard Jeb Bush’s name being proposed, but that would be suicide for the GOP. There are plenty of better possibilities. …