America is a great country for three reasons. Anybody can marry three women. Anybody can become president. Nobody can do both.
Newt Gingrich hasn’t figured that last one out. Neither, apparently, have the voters of South Carolina. A few years removed from attempting to impeach their governor for crimes of the heart, South Carolina Republicans committed crimes of the head by selecting the former House Speaker as their preferred candidate to take on President Obama.
South Carolina Republicans showed themselves not only out of touch with their professed principles—good luck winning the gay marriage debate with that standard bearer—but out of touch with the 49 other states. Gingrich’s favorability among GOP primary voters in the Palmetto State is 54 percent, according to Public Policy Polling. Gingrich’s national favorable-unfavorable ratio is 17 percent-49 percent, according to CBS News/New York Times.
Had the media institutions polled their employees instead of the American people those ratings certainly would have been lower. And that unpopularity among the elite media does much to explain Gingrich’s popularity among conservatives. Liberal journalists increasingly choose our heroes in who they attack. We take our cues in reverse.
When CNN host John King dared ask Gingrich about allegations that he propositioned Wife #2 for an “open marriage,” an “appalled” Newt quickly reversed the focus from the indecency of his infidelity to the indecency of the inquiry. It’s funny that how-dare-you moral indignation inevitably follows acts of immorality.
Every unrepentant sinner becomes an unwitting evangelist for his sin.
But Newt has come to Jesus. “I think most people,” he told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “deep down in their hearts hope there’s a forgiving God.” But the electorate isn’t God—or even godly. Hoping independents react in the voting booth as graciously as God does in heaven is wishful thinking.
People know Newt. They don’t like him.
He insists that he is different from that fiftysomething cad who divorced his wife after her multiple sclerosis diagnosis, or that thirtysomething philanderer who quit his first wife when cancer hit at an inconvenient time. Just call him NEWt, a new man, a new Newt.
He maintained in that same interview, “There’s no question at times in my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.” Don’t blame his ethics. Blame his patriotism. He did it for America.
John Edwards with an “R” next to his name won Saturday’s primary.
Newt Gingrich has good qualities. He’s an excellent debater and the leader who brought Congressional Republicans into power after forty years in the wilderness. Foremost among his charms is that he isn’t Mitt Romney. In the Bible Belt and beyond, some voters—particularly Democrats, more than half of whom are uncomfortable with a Mormon president according to an ABC News poll—regard the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as a cult. The candidate with three wives has strangely benefited from stubborn stereotypes associating Mormonism with polygamy.
But it’s Romney’s bad politics, not his religion, that South Carolina Republicans rebuffed. When your chief accomplishment is orchestrating a statewide socialized medicine scheme that inspired ObamaCare and bankrolled abortions, then that thrice-married fat guy with a permanent scowl begins to look like a fine nominee in comparison. Who can blame South Carolinians for rejecting Massachusetts Mitt?
But it’s not as though Gingrich is the only alternative. One candidate emerged in his time in the Senate as a courageous exponent of social issues despite representing a northeastern state. Another candidate has held the line against unconstitutional spending in a principled manner unrivaled in our lifetimes.
If it were Gingrich’s conservatism, rather than his character, that made him such a lightning rod, then primary voters would be right to ignore the former Speaker of the House’s anemic poll ratings outside of the party. A good candidate can persuade voters about his beliefs even in the face of media hostility. But candidates generally can’t persuade voters of their good character when they have betrayed multiple wives. The governed are understandably hesitant to award the reins of government to a man incapable of governing his appetites.
The president is a moral leader. The worst part about Monicagate was the impact incessant coverage of oral sex had in coarsening the culture. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called the phenomenon “defining deviancy down,” in which transgressions previously placed outside the bounds of decency become normalized. Electing the serial adulterer Gingrich, who ironically was also having an affair with a twentysomething underling as he pursued Clinton’s impeachment, would set a similarly bad example.
Nobody’s perfect. But presidents, even in a democracy, should be better than us and not merely like us. The former Georgia representative’s missteps represent the missteps of many Americans. But they’re not like the missteps of many presidents.
Newt Gingrich deserves our forgiveness. This doesn’t require giving him our votes.