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David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

DAVID SHRIBMAN

A GOP moment Add to ...

A new season begins with the new year. For months, politicians, pundits and prognosticators have been sorting through the records and remarks of the Republican presidential candidates, but, in a few days, American voters will actually have their say – and their decisions, in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3 and the New Hampshire primary on Jan 10, will give shape to U.S. politics in the second decade of the 21st century.

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At stake are the American role in the Middle East and Central Asia, the role of government regulation in American life, the future of health care, and the shape of the U.S. response to high unemployment and high deficits and debt. But there also are substantial political implications as voters in Iowa and New Hampshire make their way to caucus sites and polling stations – questions whose answers will reveal the character of the country and the governing style it will assume as it approaches those vital policy choices.

Here are some of the questions the Republican campaign has posed:

Is there a political establishment in 21st-century America?

That question was first raised when Barack Obama, only four years from an unremarkable role as a state senator in Illinois, defeated Hillary Clinton, a U.S. senator and the formidable wife of a five-term governor and two-term president, in a bruising 2008 Democratic nomination fight in which all the old special interests, including big labour, were in the Clinton camp. Now the existence of a Republican establishment – a phrase that used to be redundant – is being tested in Iowa and New Hampshire.

In the salad years of that establishment, the tried and tested candidate almost always prevailed in the Republican Party, which is constituted more like a fraternal lodge than a political party. That’s why the Republicans nominated Thomas Dewey of New York, Richard Nixon of California, George H.W. Bush of Texas and Robert Dole of Kansas – all men with sound credentials and who, most important, had run for president before. That was part of the logic behind the campaign of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who had run credibly but not successfully in 2008. He had the experience, the money, the organization – and, like George W. Bush, impeccable establishment credentials. His father, George Romney, had been chairman of American Motors, governor of Michigan, a presidential candidate and a member of the Nixon cabinet.

The emergence of Mr. Romney as the Republican nominee would breathe new life into the American political establishment. But his defeat, especially at the hands of former House speaker Newt Gingrich, would signal its death knell.

Has the American political style changed?

For generations, U.S. presidents campaigned among the people, encountering them in luncheonettes, church basements, town meetings and labour halls. As the country grew, this personal style of campaigning was abandoned in general elections but still prevailed in Iowa and New Hampshire, both of which provided colourful rural backdrops for such retail-style politics.

This year, Mr. Gingrich has all but eschewed the traditional meet-and-greet style of politics, using his debate performances to catapult himself into the front ranks and gambling that his high visibility rendered irrelevant the old-style political organizations that Iowa and New Hampshire rewarded. This provides perhaps the greatest test of the importance of the personalized politics that Iowa and New Hampshire treasure and that Americans husband as one of their most cherished myths. “The Gingrich approach,” says former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, a Romney supporter, “is a threat to a kind of politics that has served the country well.”

Why are the Republicans, so united in their desire to defeat Mr. Obama, so full of divisions?

The fundamental rift is between economic conservatives, whose preoccupations are low taxes and economic growth, and social conservatives, who are concerned about abortion and the role of faith in American life. These divisions were largely papered over in the 1980s but reached full flower after Ronald Reagan left the White House in 1989. Moreover, it’s axiomatic that large coalitions are susceptible to fissures, and the Republicans’ successes after the Kennedy-Johnson years have made them big enough to be especially vulnerable to doctrinal disputes.

Today, the tensions between social and economic conservatives are particularly visible in Iowa, where religious conservatives often clash with traditional conservatives concerned about government spending. But, in the Obama years, a more muscular brand of conservative is emerging. This new conservative is unwilling to compromise with Democrats on spending or taxes, insistent on projecting conservative social values, committed to repeal Mr. Obama’s health-care overhaul, opposed to same-sex marriage and, in many cases, determined to teach intelligent design along with evolution in public schools.

Unity among Republicans has been elusive this year, and it remains to be seen whether, in the general election, conventional Republicans aligned with Mr. Romney would be able to support Mr. Gingrich, or whether the supporters of Mr. Gingrich or some of the other new-style conservatives, such as Texas Governor Rick Perry or Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, could stomach Mr. Romney atop the Republican ticket.

Why has Mr. Romney faltered?

Actually, he hasn’t. He’s stayed pretty much where he was, with about a quarter of the Republican electorate clinging to him while other Republican candidates have risen up, then fallen away. His first challenger, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, left the race months ago. Then a succession of others – Ms. Bachmann, Mr. Perry, businessman Herman Cain – flared, then flamed out.

Mr. Romney’s Mormon religion is probably not a factor; he speaks openly and easily about it these days, and a New York Times-CBS News poll showed that three out of four evangelical Republicans likely to attend the state’s caucuses next week said they would vote for a Mormon candidate. Instead, the impediments he faces are his policy switches – Mr. Romney supported a health-care plan in Massachusetts almost identical to the national plan he now opposes, for example – and his stiff, stuffy image.

His advantage is that, at a time of upheaval, he’s steady, dependable, predictable – the very model of a Harvard MBA before the tech boom changed everything. But in an age when the reliable is reviled, that’s also his biggest disadvantage. Plus he may not have enough anger for the new Republican crowd.

So why did Mr. Gingrich’s campaign soar – and then sour?

It soared, in part, because the physics of politics abhors a vacuum. With four other onetime front-runners cast aside in a period of five months, Mr. Gingrich was basically the only one left. But it soured because the former House Speaker suddenly received the kind of scrutiny he had avoided when he was just one of the pack, precisely the reason Rep. Ron Paul enjoyed a boomlet this month and then, after some of his views became better known, is being subjected to the same kind of re-evaluation Mr. Gingrich experienced.

Mr. Paul has a loyal cadre of supporters who oppose the Federal Reserve Bank and an interventionist U.S. foreign policy. He has an outside chance of winning the Iowa caucuses, but his chances of winning the nomination are nil. Not so with Mr. Gingrich.

A visionary, a historian, a fast talker, a fluent debater, Mr. Gingrich is as much a force of nature as anyone in American politics. He’s a futurist – one of Washington’s first such characters, and probably responsible for Alvin Toffler’s unlikely revival in the 1990s – and a revolutionary, the only person in the United States who understood that the Democrats, who had controlled the House for 40 years, actually could be toppled in 1994.

In those Republican wilderness years, he believed when no one else did – but his leadership was so controversial that he himself was toppled soon after the Republicans seized the House. The latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll shows that fully half of Americans say they wouldn’t vote for Mr. Gingrich.

Last summer, Mr. Gingrich’s campaign was written off as dead; his own staff members abandoned him, not quietly but with virulent criticism of his lack of commitment to the campaign and discipline in it. But by force of will, intellect and stellar debate performances, he not only has endured but flourished. Despite the headwinds he faced this month, he has more than a theoretical chance at being the Republican presidential nominee. Stranger things have happened, but not often.

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of U.S. politics.

Follow on Twitter: @shribmanpg

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