WASHINGTON — Republicans are more conservative than at any time since their 1980 dismay about another floundering president. They are more ideologically homogeneous than ever in 156 years of competing for the presidency. They anticipated choosing between Mitt Romney, a conservative of convenience, and a conviction politician to his right. The choice, however, could be between Romney and the least conservative candidate, Newt Gingrich.
Romney's main objection to contemporary Washington seems to be that he is not administering it. Romney's economic platform has 59 planks — 56 more than necessary if you have low taxes, free trade and fewer regulatory burdens. Still, his conservatism-as-managerialism would be a marked improvement upon today's bewildered liberalism.
Gingrich, however, embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive. And there is his anti-conservative confidence that he has a comprehensive explanation of, and plan to perfect, everything.
Granted, his grandiose rhetoric celebrating his “transformative” self is entertaining: Recently he compared his revival of his campaign to Sam Walton's and Ray Kroc's creations of Walmart and McDonald's, two of America's largest private-sector employers. There is almost artistic vulgarity in Gingrich's unrepented role as a hired larynx for interests profiting from such government follies as ethanol and cheap mortgages.
His temperament — intellectual hubris distilled — makes him blown about by gusts of enthusiasm for intellectual fads, from 1990s futurism to “Lean Six Sigma” today. On election eve 1994, he said a disturbed South Carolina mother drowning her children “vividly reminds” Americans “how sick the society is getting, and how much we need to change things. … The only way you get change is to vote Republican.” And remember his recent swoon over the theory that “Kenyan, anti-colonial” thinking explains Barack Obama.
Gingrich believes everything is related to everything else and only he understands how. Conservatism, in contrast, is both cause and effect of modesty about understanding society's complexities, controlling its trajectory and improving upon its spontaneous order. Conservatism inoculates against the hubristic volatility that Gingrich exemplifies.
Obama is running as Harry Truman did in 1948, against Congress, but Republicans need not supply the real key to Truman's success — Tom Dewey. Confident that Truman was unelectable, Republicans nominated New York's chilly governor, whose virtues of experience and steadiness were vitiated by one fact: Voters disliked him. Before settling for Romney, conservatives should reconsider two candidates who stumbled early on.
Both are risky
Rick Perry (disclosure: my wife Mari Will advises him) has been disappointing in debates. They test nothing pertinent to presidential duties but have become absurdly important. Perry's political assets remain his Texas record and Southwestern zest for disliking Washington and Wall Street simultaneously and equally.
Jon Huntsman inexplicably chose to debut as the Republican for people who rather dislike Republicans, but his program is the most conservative. He endorses Paul Ryan's budget and entitlement reforms. Huntsman would privatize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (Gingrich's benefactor). He would end double taxation on investment by eliminating taxes on capital gains and dividends. Huntsman's thorough opposition to corporate welfare includes farm subsidies. Between Ron Paul's isolationism and the faintly variant bellicosities of the other six candidates stands Huntsman's conservative foreign policy, skeptically nuanced about America's need or ability to control many distant developments.
Romney might not be a Dewey. Gingrich might stop being (as Churchill said of John Foster Dulles) a bull who carries his own china shop around with him. But both are too risky to anoint today.