In Praise of the Republican Field

I’ve grown weary reading about the disappointing nature of the Republican field for President. So allow me to take a contrarian view: We have a solid field of candidates that seems to be leading to an exciting choice.

First, a disclaimer. Way back when there were twenty or thirty names being tossed about, Newt Gingrich was my first choice–largely because of the clarity with which he sees the civilizational challenge from the Islamic world. So it may appear cheap and easy for me to laud a process that has resurrected my candidate after I (and almost everyone else) had left him for dead.

Next, a concession. There are plenty of great candidates who bowed out of the race. Personally, as a fourth generation Brooklynite, there is something I find refreshingly familiar about Chris Christie. It would have been a real pleasure to have a President who understands the difference between arrogance and chutzpah. Perhaps some other time.

Finally, the field we do have. As we head towards the political hiatus also known as Christmas, the two leading candidates appear to be Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. It is hard to imagine two more different politicians:

Gingrich is a bold visionary, notoriously undisciplined, willing to call the world as he sees it, impetuous to the point of occasional recklessness, yet as versed in the detailed arcana of legislative procedure as in the big-picture restructuring of the American economy and of America’s place in the world.

Romney is a manager par excellence, disciplined and calm, effective if not bold, capable of boasting an extraordinarily impressive record of successes in both the public and the private sector, yet singularly uninspiring.

What Gingrich and Romney do have in common is that neither belongs to a particular GOP faction. Some of us see that as a positive; many others do not. But for those who do prefer closer adherence to doctrine, the field offers three fine choices–Rick Perry, Michelle Bachman, and Rick Santorum. Want a colorful outsider? Until recently (and perhaps in the future), Herman Cain fit the bill. Prefer a libertarian/isolationist ideologue with conspiracy-theoretic roots? Ron Paul is your man. And if you like Romney’s cool competence but don’t particularly like the man, there’s always John Huntsman, and there used to be Tim Pawlenty. All in all, not a bad selection. (There is, of course, only one Newt).

At the top of the field though, Gingrich and Romney provide excellent contrasting opportunities. Under normal circumstances, a President Romney would be a fine choice. I have little doubt that he would lead a successful, center-right, technocratic administration–perhaps most closely resembling the successful center-left technocratic administration of Bill Clinton. And if that is the direction that the Republican Party and the country choose, President Romney will serve us well and make us proud.

I am hardly alone, however, in noting that circumstances today may not be “normal.” We are suffering from twelve years of bipartisan mismanagement, capped off by astounding Progressive overreach. The economy is moribund, the solvency of our social safety net is imperiled, regulatory complexity is strangling us, we are in retreat abroad, and we are facing an empowered, brutal, ruthless, if dispersed threat from the Islamic world and a better organized challenge from China. Such times require fundamental, structural change.

Historic debates about the New Deal aside, FDR’s reorientation of America (albeit with Reagan’s correctives) stood us in good stead throughout the twentieth century. But yesterday’s solutions always sow the seeds of today’s problems. The social, economic, military, and foreign policy structures that changed America between 1933 and 1948 have run their course. We need new structures. Over the next few years, it is absolutely imperative that we simplify our tax and regulatory systems, restore our safety net to solvency, motivate and empower innovators and entrepreneurs, rebuild our integrity abroad, and face up to the nature of today’s global challenges.

There is only one man standing even remotely capable of handling these tasks: Newt Gingrich. It is a sign of the times that Republican poll respondents appear to have reached this conclusion while the Party’s power structure remains focused almost everywhere else.

Which is not to say, of course, that the power structure’s concerns about Gingrich are unwarranted. Lack of discipline can certainly hinder a campaign–though as Bill Clinton proved, it need not destroy a Presidency. And whoever carries the GOP standard must be a successful candidate before becoming a President. The thought of Candidate Gingrich scares at least as many people as does the thought of President Gingrich. Furthermore, a man who puts forward as many ideas as Gingrich does faces an inherent quality control problem: plenty of bad ideas sit aside his good ones. That, however, is why we have a deliberative legislature and a separation of powers; it lets a million ideas bloom, the good ones flourish, and the bad ones wither on the vine. That should help allay fears of Gingrich as President–though hardly those of him as candidate. Besides, those who value calm, stability, predictability, and competence, have an excellent choice in Mitt Romney.

All of that, however, is simply to return to the theme with which I opened. Disappointments, warts, and all, the 2011 GOP Primary Preseason seems to be culminating in an exciting choice: I believe that Newt Gingrich is the right man for the times–but I would hardly be uncomfortable with a President Romney. Whether you prefer a soaring visionary or a stable manager, we’ve got a man for you.

All in all, that’s not a bad place to be eleven months before a general election.


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