As of the voting results yesterday in Wisconsin, Maryland and DC, Mitt Romney has more than twice as many delegates (655) as Rick Santorum (278), who in turn is doubling up Newt Gingrich (135). With Romney past the halfway mark (1,144 delegates) on the path to the nomination, it would seem that at least Gingrich, whose last primary victory—of two total—came on March 6, should step aside in the wake of his apparent defeat.
Gingrich, however, is evidently not going to. Even with yesterday’s three electoral routs (he won exactly none of the 91 delegates at stake), Gingrich remains committed to pursuing his push for the nomination as far as it can possibly go. Despite acknowledging his practically impossible position, Gingrich is betting his candidacy on a brokered convention, where he hopes his pull with influential Republican officials is stronger than his pull with Republican voters. (He reaffirmed this plan late last night.)
Putting aside the blatant disregard for the will of the voters inherent in such a move, what Gingrich is doing is indicative—at least to me—of a burgeoning form of extremism within the Republican Party.
By ‘extremism’ I don’t mean the virtually continuous rightward shift of the party’s policies, but rather an extremist attitude, an outlook based on a sense of absolute certainty that allows for no compromise nor deviation. This type of attitude, in its utter inflexibility, requires unerring commitment to doing whatever is necessary to succeed; thus, a candidate whom voters have unequivocally declared they do not want exhausts every possible avenue to the nomination regardless of the consequences.
This attitude is a reflection of an important shift in American politics as a whole (and conservative politics in particular) over the last couple decades—something I hope to address in coming posts—but I want to focus here on the peculiarities of the current Republican primary race. What’s interesting about how this is all playing out is that Newt Gingrich is not an extremist. Though a craven politician and noted egotist, Gingrich has shown a ready willingness in the past to compromise and is generally far more pragmatic than the latest crop of Tea Party-influenced Republican officials. (In this respect the government shutdown of 1996 forms a neat comparison with the near-shutdown of 2011: the former occurred because Bill Clinton called Gingrich’s bluff, and Newt backed off only days later, while in the case of the latter House Republicans seemed more than willing to let the government go bankrupt on principle.) For what it’s worth, Gingrich has evinced little of their intractability.
This is what makes his refusal to bow out now so interesting. The argument could be made that Santorum, who also badly trails Romney, should drop out as well. Yet as one who clearly believes in the absolute rightness of his cause and the imperative of his candidacy, Santorum not giving in just makes sense; it’s so obvious as to be unremarkable.
With Gingrich, the motivations are far less clear. Unless we believe that he thinks he truly has a shot at emerging from the convention as the nominee—and I don’t—this leaves two possibilities: that he is aiming for a high post in a Romney administration, or he wants to reassert his influence and power in the Republican Party establishment (and maybe land a new gig at Fox News). The only way to accomplish either of these is to prove himself as an important figure within the party. Merely running for president isn’t enough. (Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann aren’t exactly acting as power brokers, to say nothing of Tim Pawlenty and Herman Cain.) But if Gingrich is still in the conversation come convention time, no matter how DOA his candidacy is by that point, then he might have some weight to throw around. (Not a fat joke.)
This is all counter-intuitive, of course. There’s no way Gingrich continuing to run helps the party. It merely prolongs the primary contests, exposing all the candidates to more in-fighting, spending more money and increasing the chances that one of them will do or say something colossally stupid. So why would the powers-that-be in the Republican establishment reward Gingrich for making a messy situation worse through sheer intransigence?
The answer, I think, speaks to the current state of conservative politics: because he’s acting the way he’s supposed to. He’s acting the way the conservative base (particularly given its ambivalence toward Romney’s candidacy) expects. If compromise and flexibility are considered weaknesses, then staying in the race can only help Gingrich’s cause. The reasoning is simple. In order to run for president, a candidate must think that they are the absolute best person for the job, that their sense of loyalty, patriotism, morality, piety, duty, etc. makes them uniquely suited to be the best possible president. All other candidates are necessarily inferior. So then if the candidate gives up, they are allowing someone who is not the best person for the job become president. In Newt Gingrich’s case, he must believe that he is the true conservative visionary who can right Obama’s myriad wrongs, and therefore he must act accordingly. An official in Gingrich’s PAC said as much, stating that Newt is not dropping out “because he wants to give those who helped build the party an alternative and they do not feel Mitt Romney is their alternative.”
We’ve seen this extremist attitude from Republicans before, of course, in their refusal to bend on any number of issues and their absolute certainty in the rightness of their views. But this attitude has usually been directed outwards. This primary race is showing for the first time this extremism aimed at fellow Republicans. This is in many ways the logical conclusion of such an attitude. (Intransigence doesn’t really follow party lines.) But it’s remarkable watching Republicans actively go after each other—hurting their party’s cause in the process—projecting the inflexibility their supporters have come to expect.