A Campaign Dictionary

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

The bogeyman of the Washington insider is often a target of the Gingrich campaign, but we have as yet no definition. To be an “insider,” should the candidate have served in the federal government for, say, ten years? Should he be currently living inside or near the Capital Beltway? Should he be conducting business with government agencies? Or is it a state of mind defined by the critic of the moment?

For the charge to stick, we need criteria. Most would accept that in 2008 John McCain fit the bill, while Sarah Palin did not. Yet Newt Gingrich has, for obvious reasons, been reformulating the charge without defining it. In the old days, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich would both surely have qualified as DC insiders, because of their long congressional service and their post officium, for-profit business dealings with federal agencies and departments.

One way to give the game away is by one’s boasts: The insiders assure their listeners, “I know how Washington works and can clean up the mess,” while the outsiders brag, “I will go to Washington and clean up the mess.”

The Establishment

Who is the establishment? Is it TV pundits at the networks, or op-ed writers at the major newspapers and magazines, but not radio-talk-show hosts or prairie-fire cable-news politicos, who often reach far more people? The big-money boys between Washington and New York, but not the even-wealthier out in Texas or Silicon Valley? US senators and representatives, but not more numerous state and local officials? High-profile DC lawyers, power-brokers, and officials, but not far more visible governors?

It is charged that the Republican establishment is pushing Romney because it is timid and out of touch with the people, cares only about the conservative status quo, gets along with, rather than confronts, Democrats, and is of the same social class and comfortable culture as its Democratic-establishment counterparts. Perhaps. But when I talk to people out here in the middle of nowhere in central California, whether they are independents, Democrats, or Republicans, they usually opt for Gingrich or Romney, not so much on matters of ideology but on the basis of who they think might win. They do not balance Rush Limbaugh’s skepticism about Romney’s electability versus George Will’s belief that Gingrich will take lots of congressional candidates down with him, but they simply listen to the contenders and often conclude that Romney is a safer bet (fewer liabilities rather than more assets), at least this year against a vulnerable Obama.


All candidates hate to release records. Yet usually even embarrassing material is forgiven or forgotten. Issues arise only when information is withheld. Romney worried about his tax returns — largely for nothing, as they showed that he made big money and gave lots of it away. Santorum and Gingrich will probably not wish to release their last five years’ returns, given their business concerns, but few would care much whether they do or don’t.

Medical records are more important and even more finessed, as we saw from Barack Obama’s mysterious one-paragraph synopsis from his personal physician that might yet become an issue in the 2012 campaign (what’s to hide in such a young, apparently healthy president?). It is a mystery how Gingrich, the oldest and least fit of the candidates, seems to press on day after day, amid enormous stress and wear, and show few symptoms of illness or fatigue.

College records should not matter; but they do — remember the slurs from the Left against the supposed dunce George W. Bush, which all boomeranged when we learned that both Gore and Kerry were no better students or test takers. In regard to the Obama lack of transparency, perhaps the eventual Republican nominee should announce, “I will release neither my college transcripts nor my full medical records,” and leave the liberal media to make the connection.

“A Great Debater”

After the Lincoln–Douglas debates, the more impressive Lincoln lost the Senate race to Douglas. The truth is that presidential debates are not an Oxbridge debating society. The crowd, the nature of the questioners, one’s appearance, and a host of other factors often trump the cogency and delivery of the arguments — as we saw with Nixon–Kennedy in 1960. Newt Gingrich assures us he can outdebate Barack Obama, but he lost both of the last two debates to Mitt Romney, who was more informed and better prepped on the style of his opponents.

So often the “great debater” loses. Both John Anderson and Jimmy Carter thought they would tear apart the seemingly tired and forgetful Ronald Reagan. Neither did. In 1984, the even smoother Mondale had no better luck. In theory, wonkish technocrats like Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, and John Kerry should have demolished the herky-jerky Bushes. But none of them really did, probably because Americans value plain speaking over glibness, and often root for the guy who is supposed to be outclassed. A tossed-off one-liner — “There you go again” — or an uppity Al Gore sigh often trumps 90 minutes of substance.

In truth, it is hard to be a consistently effective debater — as both Gingrich and Romney have shown. So far Newt Gingrich gives little evidence that he can take apart Barack Obama in a debate, and so one wonders why he keeps referencing that promise as fact. One thing we do know: The loser in a debate is often the one who took victory for granted and therefore in his smugness appears tired, bored, or simply unprepared.

Family Values

What are family values — reflections of the way America now is, or ideals that it should try to return to? We caricature Newt Gingrich’s messy personal life, but given that about half of the nation’s marriages end in divorce, and given that the average number of kids is about two, and given that some effective presidents (JFK, Bill Clinton) were not happily married, Gingrich’s mess may, in fact, better mirror present-day America than his opponents’ family life.

I don’t know too many Americans like the long-married Romneys, who have five children, or the Santorums, who have seven. I would prefer to see more like them, but I confess that the Gingrich model (two kids, two divorces) is probably more common. So when Rick Santorum holds up his own experience as proof of family values, it is both true and not true — a wonderful exemplar of a 19th-century America we might hope to return to, but hardly reflective of most current households. If anything, some less virtuous might resent the Santorums’ success, which seems a reproach to their own familial failures — as, on the other side of the coin, Clinton’s errant ways apparently did not bother a majority of the public.

And when Newt Gingrich claims that his turn toward religion changed his behavior, most sigh. A common profile is that when men of power seek out the company of women not their spouses, they continue until age (try one’s 50s) catches up with them. Then energy levels, appearance, and boredom encourage monogamy — and the newly monogamous often declare that religion, not time, was the cure of their malady.


Candidates can’t decide whether they should have some proof of wealth, which suggests that their success in private life will augur well for us if we elect them president, or be sort of just upper middle class, to assure us that they have faced the same ordeals as most of America. Elect an aristocrat like John Kennedy or George H. W. Bush and you are largely free of the hucksterism and scandal of a striving Bill (Whitewater) Clinton or Newt (Freddie Mac) Gingrich — if the public can accept the patrician distance that comes with lots of inherited money (ignorance of bar codes at the store).

Note how reluctant all the candidates are to release three years’ tax returns, and how eager they are to suggest they are men of the people: Mitt, we are assured, made his own money; Newt grew up army base to army base; Rick’s grandfather mined coal. In truth, all are probably millionaires, but they try to contextualize that fact in ways that will win over rather than offend far poorer voters.

Sum it all up, and we see a sort of ideal presidential profile: money, but not too much, and made rather than inherited, used to smooth off the rough edges but not to the point of losing touch, casually evident in dress and speech, but not overtly, in Trump style. Remember that, and all the strange contortions of the candidates make sense.

One last suggestion: The Republicans should study very carefully how Barack Obama has mastered these same paradoxes: the life-long politician who ran on an outsider’s promise of hope and change; the $1 billion fund-raiser who renounced public campaign financing and instead campaigned as recipient and enemy of Wall Street; the open candidate who released neither his medical nor his college records and whose prior life was tightly shut; the great debater as skilled on the teleprompter as he was unskilled off it; the ideal family man who grew up without his parents; the prep-school, government-subsidized student who became a Chicago deal-maker, and who likes the good life as much as he demonizes it in others.

Appearing what you are not is now usually the key to political success.

©2012 Victor Davis Hanson

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