As far back as October 22, 2011 Ross Douthat in the New York Times, and as recently as Jan. 14, 2001, the lead in the Economist declared that “Mr. Romney is likely to win the nomination.” However, the Republican primaries in South Carolina are a clear example of the adage that a week is a lifetime in politics. It looks like Gingrich is going to win South Carolina. While I do think that Romney is still the odds on favorite, I do remember that slightly more than four years ago, before the votes were actually cast, Hillary was the Democratic nominee, and McCain didn’t stand a chance. For now, it seems Gingrich is the bad boy, right for a date. Romney is the steady one, suitable for marriage.
Rather than try to predict what the future holds, it makes sense to ask, what happened over the week? Most of it happened on TV and multiple metaphors and analogies are rather apt. Romney fumbled the ball. He has made a lot of money, and apparently has an effective tax rate which is low enough to support the proposition that the law must be changed to make rich people pay higher effective tax rates. He seems reluctant to release his tax returns. Earth to Romney – if you carry on in this race you must release your tax returns eventually. So you might as well do it now, for if you don’t, you may not win the nomination.
Gingrich threw a couple of Hail Marys when he responded to a question that Juan Williams of FOX NEWS asked him in a debate on Monday, and a question that John King of CNN asked him in a debate on Thursday. For those who haven’t seen these exchanges, please return to Earth and click on Juan Williams/Gingrich and John King/Gingrich. Notice how he begins both answers with a “No.” I think the “No” in both cases said a lot. It said, “I am smarter than you, and your mindset, attitude, and intentions are worthy of dismissal. “ Given his audience, and those he was seeking to appeal to, this was rhetorical brilliance at its best. Notice also, in both cases, both questioners respond to Gingrich’s response in defensive terms, and opened the door for them to be taken to the shed. The conspiracy theorist in me thinks that Juan Williams asked Gingrich a softball question, giving him the opportunity to hit it out of the park. And he did! (Please note that I am a rather poor conspiracy theorist.)
However I think that the exchange with Gingrich was something King was unprepared for. Easy for me to say now, but I hope that when King responded to Gingrich’s initial response, instead of the defensive explanation for why he asked the question, he had said rather forcefully, something in the lines of, “Mr. Speaker I can see why you are uncomfortable with my asking this question, and why you think going after the media is a good strategy. But sir, when it has suited you, you have gone after people’s personal lives and made character an issue. Character is an important part of any presidential campaign, and what your ex- wife had to say about your infidelities matters, even if it is inconvenient.” And he shouldn’t have just said it, but say it forcefully. And for the record, I do not think a candidates personal life should be a campaign issue. All that I am suggesting is that if you think it is a campaign issue, then when you raise it, do not be defensive about raising it.
It seems to me what worked for Gingrich in his responses was not what he said, but how he said it. He simply verbally destroyed his questioners. He would not have been so effective if they stood up to him. And what didn’t work for Romney was not that he didn’t release his taxes, but how badly he defended that position. Among the qualities we want to see in a leader are confidence, clarity, and charisma. This week Gingrich demonstrated all three. Romney dropped the ball on all three.
The lesson from this week is that form matters as much as essence. In fact, this year’s Republican primary has shown that. Pawlenty had to leave when he couldn’t confidently say face to face in a debate to Romney, what he said about Romney on a weekend talk show. Perry’s campaign imploded when his memory froze, and when he couldn’t make it up on the fly. Cain dropped out when he couldn’t defend against a lighter version of the Gingrich problem. Maybe a necessary (even if not sufficient) condition for confidence, clarity, and charisma is conviction. And if that is true, then maybe the package is as important as the product.