Overestimating Perry, Underestimating Gingrich

For the past half year I have been on the wrong side of received opinion regarding Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich. The day that Governor Perry declared his candidacy, and the punditocracy was at his feet, I expressed doubt that he had what it takes to survive the inferno of a national campaign. This was only half of my isolation. My nadir came in mid-December, when I opined that Newt’s surge was more sustainable than all those that had gone before in the GOP race. The next day his poll numbers plunged, and I experienced the twin pains of having a commenter mock me with “If only you could have held off on this column for 24 more hours…” and having my “Newt Won’t Wilt” post replaced on the coveted masthead spot of Washington Monthly’s web page with my co-blogger Jonathan Bernstein’s post entitled “Newt in Free Fall“. I donned sackcloth and ashes and wandered alone and ashamed in desolate places of which I will not tell.

Now that Andrew Sullivan is handing out “Von Hoffman” awards to those who were sure of a Perry nomination and Gingrich has romped to victory in South Carolina’s primary, I return from pundit purgatory, like Gandalf the White, to ask why so many intelligent political observers didn’t see all this coming.

Perhaps two lessons of political history that once reliably guided expectations about elections are today more likely to mislead.

First, some commentators felt Perry would do well because “People love a fresh face”. Once true, this maxim holds today only insofar as many people enjoy a chance to punch a mug with no preexisting bruises. We are a long way past the Jimmy Carter era when many politicians with no experience on the national stage could thrive in a party presidential primary. The Internet, 24-hour news cycle and growing polarization and hatred inherent in the political process have made national elections a killing ground for most elected officials who haven’t experienced the onslaught before. Barack Obama, amazingly, rose to the occasion when he defeated a more seasoned Hillary Clinton for the democratic nomination in 2008. But Rick Perry was clearly no Obama (or even Carter) when it came to political ability. Gingrich in contrast has long been at home in the klieg light-illuminated cage match that we call our national politics.

Second, the national parties have reversed their traditional ways of choosing nominees. The orderly, Establishment-orchestrated approach that long characterized the Republican Party has disintegrated. Instead, the GOP now looks like the Democratic Party in the 1970s: No one is in charge and the factions are ripping each other apart in a bloody scrum. Meanwhile, despite some grumbling about Obama on the left, he will, unlike Carter, face no primary nomination challenge. The many pundits who intoned that “the GOP Establishment” would quash Gingrich and elevate Perry (or Romney) were overgeneralizing from an era of Republican orderliness and Democratic Party chaos that is largely behind us.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

21 thoughts on “Overestimating Perry, Underestimating Gingrich”

  1. The former Speaker is an Establishment Republican in a lot of ways – just one who was assumed to be politically crippled. He’s no Romney, but he’ll do in a pinch.

    Reagan, too, was not quite respectable before 1980.

    Underneath Romney’s message of rewarding the deserving with vast wealth, there’s a message of making sure that the undeserving don’t get any breaks. Newt makes that latter message much more explicit, and that’s a big part of his appeal.

    1. But the trouble with all this “undeserving” stuff is figuring out who is undeserving and why. Mostly it turns out that folks with dark skin are the least deserving.
      Most people don’t dream of vast wealth. Most people want to make a reasonable living and have a secure, peaceful life. A guy who opportunisticly cashes in selling his famous name on bogus “award” plaques and tacky mugs is not fit to judge who is deserving of “breaks”.
      Newt is just the kind of vicious little hate monger they like in SC where a lynching after sunday meetin’ is a fond memory. Ahh for the good ol’ days.

  2. “…a message of making sure that the undeserving don’t get any breaks.” Indeed. I have been observing Newt up close since he lost his first House race versus Jack Flynt in the 1970s. We have returned to the days before the GOP had to use dog whistles, and Newt is finally in his element. The “other” is his enemy, first, last, and always. The other is protean, and the irony is that most of those GOP voters are the other, too. They just don’t know it. Or just refuse to know it. Sad, really, for them and the country.

  3. One of the things I find particularly interesting are the Republican primary voter comments to the effect that they want someone who will be able to hold his own in debate with President Obama — an implicit admission (even more than the backhanded and bizarre “Obama is lost without his teleprompter” pseudo-meme [which itself seemed to me an explicitly constructed “attack the strength” PR campaign, although not a very effective one] from a year or two ago) that Obama is an extremely smart and articulate guy.

    1. Three points:

      One, its not necessarily an implicit admittance that the “lost without his teleprompter” meme is false

      Two, it could be an implicit admittance that the R-Field is even more lost than Obama

      Three, and what’s the third one there? Lets see…The third one is…I can’t…Oops.

        1. Don’t know about that. If I were the Obama folks and Newt gets this thing I would be VERY CAREFUL how they handle the debates. The absolute worst thing they could do is to misunderestimate him………and I would not be at all surprised if they did just that.

          1. Oh, I think Newt could probably beat Obama in a debate, or at least stand a good chance of it. But it would have to be an actual debate, not the sort of simultaneous press conference which is wrongly called a “debate” in modern political terminology. And the chances of Obama agreeing to an actual debate, (Of the sort Lincoln and Douglas had.) rather than agreeing to both of them standing in the same room alternately being asked questions, is roughly nil.

            In a simultaneous press conference, it’s all down to the moderator’s bias, and your skill at handling his gotcha’s. Thanks to the former, Obama is very unlikely to have to deal with the latter…

          2. Anyone want to bet whether Brett has any idea about the format of the Lincoln-Douglas debates? Because while they were very impressive examples of public advocacy, they really weren’t “debates” in the sense any of us would likely recognize. The first speaker spoke for 60 minutes, followed by the second for 90 minutes, followed by the first speaker returning for 30 minutes, and at the next event the speakers traded places for first or second position. The speeches were prepared beforehand, and improvisations to respond to the other’s remarks were limited. I’d love to see that sort of exercise, but there really isn’t enough back-and-forth to qualify as a debate – and (while Brett may feel differently) I’d argue that it would absolutely play to Obama’s strengths as an orator.

            Also, the last thing Brett should request is a more robust and impartial moderator; Newt, who tends to ignore questions and to spout utter nonsense, would get slapped all over the stage even if his opponent didn’t show up. Contrary to Brett’s assertions of moderator bias, the bias of the moderator is almost always towards a Broderite willful blindness and a Lehrer-ite incapacity of judgment.

  4. “Barack Obama, amazingly, rose to the occasion when he defeated a more seasoned Hillary Clinton for the democratic nomination in 2008.”

    It now looks like the country is a great loser for this (although I don’t know this, of course). My wife supported Obama on the grounds that Clinton would bring out the Clinton-haters, while a fresh face might allow a little more civility. She now realizes that she was dreaming. Oh well.

    “Underneath Romney’s message of rewarding the deserving with vast wealth, there’s a message of making sure that the undeserving don’t get any breaks. Newt makes that latter message much more explicit, and that’s a big part of his appeal.”

    Well spotted, politicalfootball.

    1. Same in our household. Can you tell me one thing that Hillary would have done differently? Do you think that the republicans would have treated her any better? She would have continued to bail out the banks, the public option would still not be a reality and the economy would still be in the crapper.

      If one thing comes out of this administration it should be that republicans will never work honestly with democrats. Democrats need to learn this lesson and re-calibrate their understanding of how to play the game of politics in washington.

      1. Clinton would not have pushed major health care reform, at least not in her first term (memories of 1993). Would that have made a difference politically? Probably, but don’t know how much, mainly because she likely would have tackled something else (climate change?) and who knows how that would have played out.

        1. It’s worth pointing out that the House passed cap-and-trade in 2009; it died in the Senate. Obviously, the priority and the push was for the ACA, but if you think getting meaningful climate-change legislation would have been easier than getting the ACA, you’ve been reading very different news than I have. Especially in the Senate, there are and were too many Democrats from rural and resource-extraction states (Louisiana, West Virginia, Montana, etcetera), and we can assume a total Republican blockade, even from supposed moderates like the Maine twins.

  5. I only disagree with Keith Humphreys on one point. There is a faction in charge of the Republican Party–the money-cons. They are not friends of Newt. To get elected, they have had to ally with all kinds of losers. But the losers have never been at the core. Newt is at the head of the rabble, and threatens the money-cons’ control.
    The iron law of organizations will assert itself. If necessary, the money-cons will prioritize their power over their Party over their Party’s ability to get elected.

  6. I had thought Gingrich out of money, but apparently $5M turned up at an opportune moment. There will be strong pressure on Santorum now to drop out during the February break, leaving Romney, not-Romney and Paul. With any luck this will turn into a replay of ’64 and not be settled until the California primary. Romney’s not a bad fit for the Rockefeller role; Gingrich, though, doesn’t look or sound like Goldwater. And the interesting twist is that the adulterous candidate is the right-winger rather than the Eastern moneybags.

    1. I disagree on the iron law there – Romney remains the best choice to win, IMHO. Newt can wow the SC crowd, and sweep much of the Confederacy. But he’ll get killed in Real America.

  7. I predicted that this matchup was Obama vs Romney. Gingrich was running for second place, and the resulting TV show. I still think that, and am really only surprised that Rick Perry flamed out so early. Governors have such a good track record: Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush. 4 of the last 6. Anyways, I don’t think the GOP will let Gingrich win out. In the end it will be an election about the recession and job creation. Romney is the perfect man to run that sort of election. And if he loses then the hard right will say that they lost because they didn’t have their true conservative. And then more tea party purges and talk of RINO. Should be interesting times.

    1. You are right that a Romney loss to Obama would only cause the Tea Party to dig its bunker deeper. But what if it’s Gingrich who loses? He has the potential to screw up far worse than Romney and create an Obama landslide on the Goldwater-Johnson scale, which could wipe out the Tea Party wing for a political generation. Hooray! The chainsaw downside of a Gingrich victory, unlikely as it seems now, is reason enough to damp down such hopes.

      1. My reading of Goldwater’s loss to Johnson is that it set the stage for Nixon’s Southern Strategy. So I don’t think I would necessarily cheer a similar outcome, because the Goldwater bunch weren’t expelled from the party but rather included inside the party by Nixon and later Reagan. If Romney loses then the tea party will rally around Ron Paul for 2016 as a do or die moment, because he is the only “true conservative” and after 2016 he will be too old. If it is Gingrich…I don’t know if my brain can handle this thought experiment any longer. Gingrich running for President in November on the national ballot? My brain hurts!

        I think the only thing that could wipe out the tea party is if they nominated Ron Paul and Obama crushed him in the polls and had huge coattails and the ensuing 2013 legislative cycle saw the most liberal agenda since the Great Society. I think the tea party would excommunicated from the GOP forever. But I don’t know for sure.

  8. Maybe it is time to question the assumption that the Republicans want to win back the White House in November. Perhaps they figure that no matter what policies the government has, the economy is so badly damaged from their prior malfeasance that there will continue to be extremely slow economic growth and high unemployment for several years. Remembering that the Democrats ran Al Smith in 1928 and got the Great Depression blamed on the Republicans, remembering that running Barry Goldwater in 1964 got the Vietnam war blamed on the Democrats, remembering that the Dems brilliantly ran George McGovern in 1972 and got stagflation and Watergate blamed on them, they may want to run Newt Gingrich in 2012 and get the whole dreary Long Recession blamed on the Dems. Their behavior is so bizarre that it cannot be reconciled with the hypothesis that they want to win the presidential contest. They cannot count on Romney losing to Obama, but Gingrich is as safe a bet as they have. This electoral loss will get Fox News off the hook as well; if a Republican won the presidency and if they also take over both houses of Congress, Fox will have a hard time blaming every piece of the inevitable bad economic news on the other party.

    I received this information from a fly who was on the wall at a meeting of the Ultra-Secret Organization That Runs The Entire Political System; he has never let me down in the past. The GOP is pursuing a losing strategy with all its might; it has seen how much the Tea Party Congress has brought it into disrepute, and it is taking no chances of the Electoral College ruining its grievance and resentment strategy by handing it a victory this year.

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