February 29, 2012 § 16 Comments
by Matthew Raley
With Mitt Romney’s wins in Michigan and Arizona last night, the race for the GOP nomination may become more stable. But the diminishing political options for Romney’s competitors will not change the attitudes of GOP voters. The candidates reflect America’s deepening division without giving the leadership Americans need to reunite. Republicans will continue to grumble.
Great political leaders make coalitions that give different interests a place to combine. Ronald Reagan, for instance, is best understood as a coalition builder. He knew that strong unity begins with a dense message, one that integrates many points of view. The secret to his political power was the diversity of people and philosophies behind him. (The left has never understood this, preferring to call Reagan an illusionist.)
The two most significant GOP candidates at this writing, Romney and Rick Santorum, are not going to be great leaders.
Here are some of the cultural changes the GOP candidates reflect.
1. Economic divide.
Santorum and Romney reflect this divide perfectly. Santorum comes from a blue collar district in Pennsylvania, the real rust-belt deal. He articulates the priorities of blue collar people who have seen their way of life fall to pieces. Romney lives in the managerial world of law and finance, and articulates the problem-solving ethos of that world.
Both men talk about freedom. But the blocks of culture they represent need to hear how their specific interests in freedom combine. The question of the hour is, “Where do interests converge?”
2. Educational divide
One chunk of the nation has a college or graduate education. That block has mobility, options, and wealth. The people in it have seen their choices narrow in the last four years because of the bad economy. But they still have options to improve their lives.
The other chunk of the nation has a high school education and, maybe, work experience. This block has little social mobility, few to no options for improving their lives, and little wealth. Men in this group, particularly, do not see how they can make their way back into the economy with anything like the vitality their fathers enjoyed.
This educational divide has hardened into worldview divide. Many in the educated block view their education as a spiritual mission, a means to moral and personal transformation. Most in the uneducated block see the educational establishment as a fraud. Harvard, Madoff — what’s the difference? And this suspicion is all too well-founded (here and here). It is not just anti-intellectual bigotry, as the educated classes love to suppose.
Santorum spoke directly to this split, taking one side of it in unambiguous terms. Obama is a “snob” for talking up college. Santorum’s approach is not going to benefit him. It will be seen as unpresidential even by those who might eat it up on a talk show. But, even though candidates do not gain the nomination with boorish jabs, there remains a deep and justified hostility to the socially approved waste of resources by colleges and universities.
Romney, for his part, is a numbers guy, planted complacently on the other side of the divide.
So the question remains: how can the interests of both combine?
3. Family divide.
Charles Murray has delivered another of his virtuoso performances in social science, speaking of numbers. In Coming Apart, he shows the predominance of traditional marriage among those who are educated with a secular worldview, and the predominance of broken families among the less educated. Michael Barone analyzes the Romney-Santorum battle in light of Murray’s findings.
Santorum, in his populist flush, seems unaware that the working class no longer lives a traditional family life. Indeed, the most significant reason why the working class has fewer economic and social options is not the disappearance of manufacturing jobs, but the loss of resilience that comes from a committed marriage.
Romney has nothing to say about this. He has the gut of a financier, which, valuable though it may be, seems to leave him incapable of speaking effectively to these problems.
What will the new coalition for the traditional family look like? Actually, it won’t be political at all.
The reason the GOP hasn’t settled on a front runner is that no candidate is building a coalition.
If Santorum had wanted to be credible, he would have come out of the gate with a coalition message, and he would have made his strategy and tactics in the primaries cohere with that message. As it is, he is merely rallying a constituency, and is blowing an opportunity that only comes once in a generation.
If Romney had wanted to be credible, he would have launched his campaign with a deeper, more cogent assessment of America’s problems. But he does not appear to have the imagination to do more than deliver slogans. And by now, he has morphed too many times to sharpen his message.
Gingrich and Paul? Paul does not want a coalition. That was never his game. As for Gingrich, I would never count him out. But the coalition he envisions seems to change every time his mic goes live.
In other words, every GOP candidate wants to be Reagan without doing what Reagan did.
January 22, 2012 § 8 Comments
by Matthew Raley
The victory of Newt Gingrich in South Carolina puts evangelicals and other social conservatives at a crossroads. Gingrich by any measure is morally equal to Bill Clinton, upon whom social conservatives released so much rhetorical lava in the 1990s. Yet one of the GOP’s most traditionalist states has just told its delegates to vote for Gingrich at the convention.
The message is hard to misunderstand. South Carolina Republicans could have voted for three family men whose private morality is unquestioned. Ron Paul is one. Mitt Romney lives the way social conservatives say public men should live. His pro-life credentials are weak, but no weaker than George H. W. Bush’s were. Rick Santorum also walks the family walk, and has the additional advantage of being publicly acclaimed by evangelical leaders at a summit in Texas.
No deal. It’s Gingrich.
According to exit polls, Gingrich won almost every voter category, including independents. Women favored him 38% to Romney’s 29%. Married people favored him over Romney 41% to 28%. Gingrich won both “somewhat” and “very” conservative voters by large margins. He swept evangelicals with 44%. Romney and Santorum each took 21% of evangelicals, meaning that even their combined vote wouldn’t have beaten Gingrich.
The conclusion is inescapable: the people who wanted President Clinton removed, and who only recently heaved Mark Sanford (R) from the governor’s office for his notorious adultery, just said that adultery doesn’t matter in Gingrich’s case.
The hypocrisy cannot be healed by excuses such as:
1. Christianity is really about forgiveness.
Rick Perry used the line when he endorsed Gingrich. And, to be sure, there’s something in this forgiveness thing. But some evangelicals in the 90s, notably Tony Campolo, tried to alert evangelicals to the gospel’s potential for President Clinton, and got the smack-down. Is forgiveness only for Republicans?
2. There is a vast left-wing conspiracy that uses the politics of personal destruction.
Yes, the ABC interview with Gingrich’s ex-wife was transparently an attempt to sway the South Carolina primary. It was too exquisitely timed. But, when the words were “vast right-wing conspiracy,” social conservatives scoffed.
3. The accusations against President Clinton were never about sex, but about his perjury.
Yes, the impeachment process was about perjury. But what really bothered social conservatives at the time was Bill Clinton’s cultural significance. He was not merely a 1960s liberal, but a 1960s libertine. He represented the triumph of moral relativism and the mainstreaming of sexual immorality. Or so they said. Why not Gingrich? Why doesn’t his behavior equally symbolize the decline of sexual ethics? Symbolize it more?
Bottom line: social conservatives in Bob Jones country voted for Gingrich because they think he can win. And that’s always the bottom line in politics, left and right.
I do not believe Clinton’s or Gingrich’s transgressions tell us much about American culture, in the 1990s or today. In fact, public presidential immorality has been worse in the past. Grover Cleveland assumed responsibility for an illegitimate child in 1884, going on to serve two terms as president. The public shame of such politicians is just the continuing story of power. For the story of American culture, we have to examine what ordinary people do.
I’m one of many pastors have been arguing for years that the evangelical political machine is wrong both about the gospel and politics. Those who believe we can take back our culture through political means, and who have been selling us politicians for the last 25 years, have yet to show one cultural transformation. They keep stumbling over their spin. They have failed to understand that the political process rarely shapes culture, but is culture’s slave.
The only hope for transforming our nation is for evangelicals to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to people’s hearts. When we get our message clear again, we will see God change lives, and our culture will change as a result. Pastors are doing this with leaders of both parties, choosing to see them as men and women who need counsel, healing, and repentance rather than as enemies who should be crushed. Leaders like Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich. If followers of Christ never said another word about pro-family policies and spoke only of the restoring power of Christ through his death and resurrection, we would be amazed at the results.
The power-game will always be with us. It’s past time for us to choose Christ instead.