There were two distinct Ronald Reagans being channeled onstage at the GOP debate in Des Moines, Iowa on December 10. The problem for Mitt Romney is that for reasons of both political miscalculation and personal temperament, he chose the wrong one.
For years, Romney has been trying to convince Republicans that he is his generation's Reagan: an older white man with movie star looks who could sell sunny optimism and project a can-do spirit to Americans who wanted to believe that our best days lie ahead. On the purely superficial level of televisual image, there is a case to be made.
But what Romney failed to reckon with is that sunny optimism was never the source of Reagan's electoral appeal to the Republican base. What they loved was his old-school authoritarian masculinity -- and his willingness to attack liberalism and central tenets of the New Deal consensus head-on. From the moment he delivered his famous speech in the waning days of Barry Goldwater's failed but ultimately catalytic campaign in 1964, the right wing loved Ronald Reagan not because he was so nice, but because he effectively -- and sometimes aggressively -- expressed their hostility to the democratic changes that were transforming American culture.
And let's not forget, Reagan drew a great measure of his political strength through the 1960s and 1970s and his presidency from whites -- in the south and beyond -- who harbored deep-seated racial resentments as a result of the stunning successes of the Civil Rights Movement.
What made Reagan so effective politically beyond the fevered precincts of the right was that he was able to provide cover for that right-wing -- and racist -- animus through his command performance of the role of president in a way that articulated conservative resistance to gains made by blacks, women and gays without coming across as overtly racist, sexist or homophobic.
But Reagan's anger shone through when he needed it to. Although it is barely mentioned in the glut of revisionist romanticism about him that has appeared in the media since his death in 2004, Reagan was a "law and order" politician who talked tough and favored harsh treatment not only for criminals, but for progressive protesters. As governor of California in 1970, Reagan endeared himself to millions of conservatives nationwide when he publicly rebuked the anti-war movement that was exploding on college campuses. Governor Reagan was no conciliator: at one point he icily declared that "If it takes a bloodbath, let's get it [the student disorders] over with. No more appeasement."
Perhaps the most pivotal moment in the 1980 Republican primary campaign occurred before a debate in New Hampshire when Reagan forcefully grabbed the microphone and angrily declared "I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green!" Although he got the name wrong, (it was Mr. Breen), commentators at the time widely praised Reagan for this symbolic show of force -- and for displaying the kind of manly leadership qualities that conservatives craved.
Or consider that one of the most memorable -- and quoted -- lines of Reagan's presidency was at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1987 when he told Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall!" This was Reagan the aggressive cold warrior at his best -- not the genial old man of blessed memory. Whether one admired or was repulsed by the positions he took on matters foreign and domestic, it is undeniable that Reagan's ability to project anger was highly attractive to his most passionate supporters on the far right -- and crucial to his political success.
During his runs for the GOP presidential nomination, Mitt Romney has done a good job of mimicking Reagan's anti-government diatribes and "better days ahead" rhetoric. But unlike Reagan, whose anger by all accounts was authentic, Romney is utterly unbelievable when he adopts a more aggressive tone. He's too Ned Flanders to come off as Winston Churchill. Not so Newt Gingrich.
At the Des Moines debate there was a back and forth between Romney and Gingrich that exemplified this critical difference between them. The topic was Gingrich's recent statement that the Palestinians were an "invented people." Sensing that he could exploit Gingrich's lack of rhetorical discipline on a foreign policy issue that calls for diplomatic subtlety, Romney said "If I'm president of the United States, I will exercise sobriety, care, stability" in his handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "I'm not a bomb thrower," he continued, "rhetorically or literally."
Sensing his opportunity to out-man Romney, Gingrich pounced. "I think sometimes that it's helpful to have a president of the United States who has the courage to tell the truth," he said. He then made reference to Reagan's once-controversial statement that the Soviet Union was an "evil empire," and pointed out how Reagan had overruled his own State Department to make his famous "tear down that wall" comment. "I'm proud to be a Reaganite," Gingrich declared. "I will tell the truth, even if it's at the risk of causing some confusion sometimes with the timid."
According to conventional wisdom, Gingrich surged in the polls because conservatives were looking for an alternative to Mitt Romney. First it was Michelle Bachmann, then Herman Cain, and now the former Speaker is having his turn in the spotlight. According to this view, Romney is too much of a flip-flopper to be ideologically trustworthy, and the Tea Party is in no mood to compromise on "conservative" principles.
But I think something more elemental and visceral is also at work. Gingrich is also a flip-flopper; if you listen to some delusional right-wing radicals like Glenn Beck, he is a "progressive" statist. But he is badly beating Romney in the polls in both Iowa and nationally. Why?
Gingrich is often described as "throwing red meat" -- a widely used political metaphor for carnivorous aggression -- to the Republican base. Unlike Romney, who made a point of saying he's not a "bomb-thrower," Gingrich is popular with the Republican base precisely because he is a bomb-thrower. The violence of these metaphors is not coincidental. The right-wing of the Republican Party is restive and angry. They get this way whenever a Democrat is president. But fueled by the apocalyptic rhetoric on conservative talk radio ("America as we know it is finished if Obama is re-elected") a frightening number of (overwhelmingly white) conservatives imagine themselves to be warriors in a battle to save western civilization.
For conservatives who see the 2012 election as a cultural war, Romney's aw-shucks Mormonism was never going to work, not because he wasn't saying the "right" thing on issues, but because temperamentally he can never adequately give voice to their rage. Reagan could. And even though Gingrich is a far less attractive candidate than the former Hollywood actor he claims as his hero and inspiration, he can, too.