Newt reminiscent of Kemp

Here we are, sandwiched between two debates, wasting a lot of time and distorting the Republican brand. The repetitious Republican debates are not serving the cause of victory with this blather. 

Election politics are supposed to be about seeking victory, not debating points. Nomination and platform politics should focus on advocacy of concrete policy promises. Instead of these, too often we only get to listen to Professor Gingrich deliver yet another lecture on arcane topics that only another effete historian would appreciate. If there were a national drinking game that requires a shot of rye whiskey for every time Newt mentions “Lincoln-Douglas debates,” and a snifter of brandy whenever he says “big ideas,” and a jigger of scotch each time “grand visions” flow from his lips, the whole nation would be drunk on what he’s been selling in these debates.

Over the past three decades, in my own polls of Florida’s Republican primary voters about the relative importance of candidates’ positions on issues versus their backgrounds or leadership skills, issues typically best either background or leadership by a 2-to-1 margin. But beyond these three factors, Florida Republicans I poll place an even greater emphasis on the “morals and family values” of candidates. If we used these preferences as a benchmark, the debates would spend a lot more time ferreting out the candidates’ values and illuminating their issue proposals than vetting their grand visions or discussing campaign strategies. Perhaps Mitt Romney was spot-on with Florida’s Republicans when excoriating Newt’s values as a “special-interest lobbyist” and “disgraced Speaker.”

I certainly realize that there is a place for soaring rhetoric in a presidential contest, but let’s not allow that to take over the debates, especially when the prime need of our nation — economic recovery — demands hard-nosed, concrete solutions. Instead of utilitarian plans, on Monday evening we got Newt proposing that we have an idea contest for reviving the space economy. He spoke dreamily of “romantic and exciting futures” that might result. Huh? Romantic? Voters wanting a real job now deserve more than populist gimmicks like idea contests and intergalactic sweepstakes prizes. If our elected leaders and paid bureaucrats don’t have enough real ideas for recovery, let’s fire them. But never accept “Let them enter contests.” (And, by the way, Mitt should ask Newt on Thursday night which Americans should work late to pay the taxes to fund the “romantic” contest he envisions.)

It would be useful to judge the candidates on whether they offer tangible or symbolic benefits to voters. Mitt Romney proposing Monday to build 15 new Navy ships a year to improve national security is a tangible benefit. Newt’s promise of a contest for space economy ideas is symbolic. Symbolic benefits are for society’s economic have-nots. The Democrats have long kept major factions of their coalition in tow simply by offering symbolic payoffs like “high-level appointments,” “inclusion,” special holidays, statues and empty promises of opportunity and upward mobility that really don’t change the economic realities of their entitlement-society victims. 

Republicans are more likely than Democrats — or at least should be — to demand tangible payoffs from our candidates. Republicans are more apt to sniff out propagandistic candidacies based largely on rhetoric and symbolic fluff. One of the greatest presidential primary campaign failures of the post-World War II era Republicanism was Jack Kemp’s. I am totally convinced that his loss—something that still confounds some movement conservatives — can be attributed to Kemp’s infatuation with symbolism and empty opportunity rhetoric at the expense of a broader and more detailed policy agenda. Republicans certainly found his rhetoric appealing and his Buffalo background interesting, but in the end they didn’t know enough about what he’d really do. Gingrich could be headed down this same road.

David Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.