The PJ Tatler

Cosmetic Fixations and the Latest GOP Primary Polls

A new poll out has Newt Gingrich taking a commanding lead in three of the four early primary states. Double-digit leads in Florida, Iowa and South Carolina, and closing the gap on Romney in New Hampshire. Gallup has Gingrich up 15 nationally.

Romney didn’t win New Hampshire in 2008, so his victory there shouldn’t be seen as a done deal. It’s not. But losing there could effectively kill his campaign. For the rest of the candidates, proportional delegates means the race probably goes on into March or later. Super Tuesday is March 6. It’s cheaper to campaign now than it used to be, thanks in part to that Internet that President Obama thinks is killing jobs. It doesn’t end in Iowa, or even in Florida.

But what is going on in the Republican primary? These are dangerous times, and our two front-runners to take on Obama are, what’s the polite word here? Uninspiring. To say the least. Both strike me as very problematic for the GOP base to get behind.

One of them looks like a president, and the other talks like a president, but neither have records that suggest they would actually be good, reliable, conservative presidents. As a conservative, this bothers me.

In the one time he actually held political power, Mitt Romney governed Massachusetts from the left of center. The one-term governor signed RomneyCare, which put the state deep into personal health care decisions and did do what it was sold to do, bring prices down. The cost crisis remains, but a bit of liberty died. He empowered lefty green activists who have later been part of President Obama’s oppressive regulatory state. He ran as a conservative in 2008, and as a risk-averse moderate in 2011. But he looks like a president and he has been running for the office for six years, so there’s that, and he’s a front-runner.

In the years in which he held political power, Newt Gingrich managed to make himself the most unpopular political figure in the country. The Democrats certainly helped him with that, but he helped them too, with his government shutdown borne out of personal pique and his angry visage on the nightly news. His hypocrisy in his personal life made him toxic. His lack of discipline made him an unreliable leader. He did lead some historic and necessary efforts, such as balancing the budget and welfare reform, but he also allowed Bill Clinton to claim much of the credit for both. Since resigning from the House in disgrace, he became a lobbyist-by-another-name for the institutions that crashed the economy. And he promoted big government “solutions” to global warming with Nancy Pelosi in 2007. He says he has changed now, but it was just two years ago that he was still on board with the individual health care mandate. If he has changed, it’s from the heroic early Gingrich to the current big government Beltway Gingrich. Gingrich’s own campaign staff fired him for erratic behavior just six months ago. That’s not change I can believe in, at least not yet.

Does any of this matter? It doesn’t seem to, if you go by the polls.

What Romney and Gingrich have in common is that they lead the pack for almost entirely cosmetic reasons. Neither can make a plausible case that they are a consistent conservative. Neither can make the case that they would actually reduce government power. They say they will, but their records say otherwise. But Romney leads, because he has acted like a Republican front-runner out of central casting, and Gingrich leads, because he’s glib in a debate and engages in useful fights with the media. He seems like the smartest man in the room. He says things conservatives like to hear. His response to Pelosi’s threat to dish on him was pitch-perfect. Their records in office mean absolutely nothing if you go by the polls.

It’s not like we don’t have a choice. Republicans tend to nominate and Americans tend to elect seasoned governors, vice presidents or military figures for the presidency. Five of the last six GOP presidents have all been one or the other — Gov. Bush, Vice President Bush, Gov. Reagan, Vice President Nixon and Gen. Eisenhower (Ford is the outlier, but he was never elected president). We have one of the three categories in Texas Gov. Rick Perry. He has a solid conservative record leading the nation’s second largest state. He is who he says he is, which is more than either Gingrich or Romney can say. But because has performed badly in debates and had some gaffes, he’s stuck deep down in the polls.

Now, I live in Texas so I do have some built-in pro-Perry bias here. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, when I moved back to Texas and started working at the state GOP, I wasn’t sold on Gov. Perry. I had been living out of state, and I mostly knew of him as the governor who succeeded George W. Bush when he resigned to become president. The more I heard about Perry, though, the more I liked. His record spoke for itself: Texas’ low tax burden, its strong job growth, its relatively small government, and its promotion of individual liberty all had something to do with how Perry governed. Though the Texas governorship is constitutionally weak, Rick Perry has become the strongest governor in Texas history by persuading the other 28 statewide elected officeholders, all Republicans, to function more or less as a team. Non-Texans may not understand just how big a deal that it, but it’s huge and speaks very well of Perry’s ability to lead a government composed of strong-willed individuals in doing right but not growing the beast bigger. Rick Perry is not erratic. He has his detractors even within the state’s Republican base, as any leader does, but Rick Perry is a steady leader.

The argument that usually comes back is that, well, it’s easy to do that in a Republican state. The problem with that argument is, Texas wasn’t really a Republican state until 2002-2003 when the legislature changed hands. It was conservative and trending away from the increasingly liberal Democrats, but the Republicans had to present themselves as plausible leaders to close the deal. As governor, first Bush and then Perry led the way in that, and the Texas Democrats hate both for it.

At the height of President Obama’s popularity, many Republicans opted to go along with the president’s liberal policies. Pundits like David Brooks and David Frum and Kathleen Parker promoted a get-along and go to the middle strategy. Florida’s Republican Gov. Charlie Crist sold out. Texas’ Republican Gov. Rick Perry didn’t. Perry was among the first to recognize the Tea Party for what it is, a new force for defending traditional American ideals. He fought Obama’s agenda every step of the way, defending the people of his state, famously even meeting the president on the tarmac at Austin’s airport to try to deliver a letter to the president about the need to improve border security. That wasn’t a publicity stunt. Obama’s Homeland Security chief had laughed when Perry called to get Washington to do something to protect Texans from border violence. I half think Perry should re-stage that moment at the airport just to get the president’s attention again, challenge him to a debate from that spot.

The point of all this is, we have a solid conservative in the race. More than one, actually, but only one whose experience and record suggest he could win and would be a reliable conservative president who would work hard to roll back the damage President Obama has done. But we live in a cosmetically dominated time. Bad debate performances trump 11 solid years as governor. Good debate performances mask spotty to bad records in office. I guess this shouldn’t come as a surprise, given who is currently in the White House and how he got there. But it’s still depressing.

It’s true, Rick Perry has had some damaging gaffes lately. Those gaffes have magnified the issues many had with President Bush’s inarticulate ways. Republicans are rightly wary of nominating anyone who isn’t perfectly articulate to go up against Obama, despite the fact that Obama is a stuttering failure when he gets off TOTUS. None of Perry’s gaffes speak to an actual lack of knowledge, though, as Herman Cain’s did. They may speak to nerves or fatigue or lack of glibness, but not to effectiveness in office. His record says he would do well, while Romney’s and Gingrich’s records suggest uncertain reliability. Personally, I’d rather spend a few years defending harmless gaffes than dealing with destructive policies to perpetuate damage to the country. Rick Perry isn’t likely to engage in the latter. As I’ve said before, a candidate can get better at debating, but cannot go back in time to create a better record.

I’ll take any of the lot over Obama, make no mistake; none will be as poisonous as he has been. But having a Republican nominee with a consistent record and a history of successfully advancing conservative principles would be nice. And it’s not impossible, yet.