I heard it said that Mitt Romney missed the 1960’s. While the youth in America rioted and upended decades of tradition, he played by the rules of previous generations. The path he chose brought him a stable marriage and an exemplary family along with financial success. I can’t imagine that he regrets missing out on “drugs, sex and rock and roll.” But the 60’s changed the country and I think one of its slogans, “Question Authority,” is hitting Mr. Romney rather hard right now.
Mitt Romney and the GOP establishment are having a Sixties moment. Perhaps the moment started way back in October 2005. In that month, President George W. Bush exercised his prerogative nominating White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. Nothing in her resume suggested that she was constitutionally unfit to serve and in an earlier time respect might have been given to a sitting president. Despite murmurings, her confirmation would have proceeded. But Supreme Court nominations were no longer what they had been. A cataclysmic change had taken place with Judge Robert Bork’s 1987 nomination by President Reagan. While the destruction of Judge Bork was a disgusting spectacle, one result of that brouhaha was a diminution in the power of the president with regard to judicial appointments.
While Judge Bork himself stated in October 2005 that he was sure the Miers’ nomination would proceed, he also called it, “a slap in the face of conservatives.” He was right on the second count and wrong on the first. The outcry caused Ms. Miers to withdraw her nomination and Samuel Alito was confirmed to the Supreme Court. Rank and file conservatives learned to trust their instincts and not assume that the “establishment” was smarter than they. More recently, the Tea Party solidified conservative “power to the people” and this Republican nominating cycle is as much pitting conservatives against the Republican establishment as it is Mitt Romney against his opponents.
The 1960s didn’t just happen spontaneously. The ascendancy of Newt Gingrich and the increasing popularity of Ron Paul in this election cycle are both symptoms of the GOP’s ignoring undercurrents of unrest and not heeding valid complaints. Paul represents a group that insists on government fundamentally changing the way it has been conducting business under both Republicans and Democrats. Sniping at him and at his followers misses the point. Gingrich reminds me of Rudyard Kipling’s 1892 poem, Tommy. Tommy Atkins is a lower-class British soldier who gets no respect from society in his daily life. But when fighting is needed, all of a sudden he is sought after and valued. Here are two of the verses:
O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins,” when the band begins to play,
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it’s “Thank you, Mr. Atkins,” when the band begins to play.
We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An’ if sometimes our conduck isn’t all your fancy paints:
Why, single men in barricks don’t grow into plaster saints;
Newt Gingrich is severely flawed in many areas. He certainly isn’t a plaster saint. His personal life has been such that I need to state that I am not impugning the morals of Kipling’s Tommy by making the comparison. His public life raises serious questions as well. In an ideal world, his candidacy would be ludicrous. But he is a brawler who ably mud-wrestles with words; someone who stumbles, falls and gets back to the fight. I think the South Carolina results show that many conservatives would rather fight hard to defeat the president in November, risking a great win or a great loss, rather than staging a campaign in the Bob Dole, John McCain pattern. As he showed in Iowa, Mitt Romney has both the money and the organization to wage war to destroy Newt Gingrich. Those tactics will be useless against the sitting president. If Romney becomes the nominee by virtue of being the last man standing rather than because he is a leader who millions want to follow, there is little chance of beating Mr. Obama.
If the stakes weren’t so high this election cycle would be fascinating. At the moment, “none of the above” probably sums up the dominant feeling of the Republican electorate. So far, the Republican Party is the biggest loser and if amazing and unprecedented things don’t happen, so are the American people.