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.