By Mary Claire Kendall
As James L. Petigru famously quipped after his state seceded, “South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.”
South Carolina Republicans’ choice of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich over former Governor Mitt Romney in their presidential primary is understandable given their desire to deliver a knockout punch to President Barack Obama in the fall debates. But, the notion the Republican Party is actually prepared, as Charles Krauthammer writes, to commit political suicide, is unthinkable.
Still, the signs are there, which former Senator Rick Santorum’s triple win in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado, reinforces.
A particularly unhealthy trend is the conservative penchant to try and relive the past based on an unrealistic dream of conservative purity.
One key conservative, passionately supportive of former Governor Sarah Palin, told me with great certitude months ago, the 2012 primary will be a replay of the 1976 primary, when former California Governor Ronald Reagan took the fight with President Gerald Ford all the way to the convention. Gingrich vows the same.
The theory goes, if Republicans choose the Ford candidate, they will lose in the fall, paving the way to the next Reagan in 2016. Many consider Palin (or perhaps Gingrich, though he would be 72/73) the 2016 Reagan. Funny thing, like clockwork, Palin suddenly began criticizing Romney when he all but had the nomination wrapped up, insisting that he prove he created some 100,000 jobs while at Bain. One week after husband Todd endorsed Gingrich, she said she would vote “for Newt” in South Carolina “in order to keep this thing going.” All the way to 2016!
Gingrich, alternatively, tag-teaming with Santorum, is clearly plotting a yellow brick road to conservative nirvana more reminiscent of 1980 when President Ronald Reagan was elected. That year, a true blue conservative finally triumphed over the Republican Party’s establishment wing—16 years after Senator Barry M. Goldwater’s (R-AZ) loss to LBJ.
Gingrich insists nothing but a Reagan conservative will do and fancies his foot fitting that Cinderella slipper. (Santorum is bursting that bubble.) Romney, born to privilege, is the George H.W. Bush of 1980, and, ipse facto, must be defeated. President Barack Obama is, of course, Carter—on steroids! Fifty-six percent of Americans said a year out he did not even deserve re-election.
Of course, 1964 looms large as well. That year conservatives chose Goldwater, for whom “Extremism in the defense of liberty (was) no vice”—except at the polls. (Bet on Gingrich hinting at Santorum’s extremism.)
The Republican primary leading up to the 1964 election was a brutally contentious fight between the establishment wing of the Republican Party, who supported New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, grandson of John D., Standard Oil founder, and the insurgent conservative wing backing Goldwater. The political rancor that race injected into the Party lives to this day.
In 1964, just like today, the polls were all over the place. And, while choosing the most conservative candidate seemed a no-lose proposition, given the sympathy vote favoring Johnson in the aftermath JFK’s assassination; this year, it’s thought no Republican can lose to Obama—no matter how out of tune with general election voters that candidate is.
But, not only did Republicans lose in 1964—they lost by a landslide.
Doesn’t matter, conservatives say. After the Goldwater debacle, Reagan spearheaded the conservative movement to restore America’s greatness—the kind of outcome, many conservatives say, would be just fine with them because it would set the stage for real conservative governance, after Obama is finished with America. Indeed, many argue if Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton, instead of Goldwater, had won the Republican nomination in 1964, edging out Rockefeller, we would never have had Reagan.
But, wait a minute. It’s not 1980, 1976, 1964… It’s 2012 and the stakes could not be higher. Far better to wake up to reality now than endure a course of electroshock therapy were Obama re-elected.
So, what’s the reality? Can Newt Gingrich win? No. Is Rick Santorum the best choice for Republicans? Probably not, but he’d make a fantastic Veep. Can Mitt Romney restore Reagan’s “shining city on the hill” and lead the nation in its “rendezvous with destiny”? Absolutely. His vision of transforming this into a new American Century—rejecting Obama’s vision of managing American decline—is Reaganesque, or, coining a new term, Romneyesque. That is to say, it is expressed with grace, skill and a sense of urgency and full recognition of this time of peril—in Winston Churchill’s words, “measureless peril.”