01/25/2012 02:05 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2012

Wronger But Stronger: GOP's New(t) Logic

You might have thought that every Republican presidential candidate would have the same motto emblazoned on his campaign office wall: "It's the economy, stupid." No doubt that famous Clinton '92 slogan does show up on each of those walls. But it's well below another, more salient, Clinton saying: "When people are insecure, they'd rather have [a president] who is strong and wrong than [one] who's weak and right."

Last week I wrote in a blog post that "wrong but strong" explained why Mitt Romney was running neck-and-neck with Barack Obama: Romney may look wrong about economic justice, but he's managing to portray the incumbent as too weak to deserve reelection.

Of course last week I, like so many others, foolishly assumed Romney would be the GOP candidate on Election Day. Now we must once again take seriously the resurrected Newt Gingrich, who, I suspect, has a giant sign on his office wall that reads: "wronger but stronger."

In South Carolina Gingrich won evangelicals by a factor of 2 to 1, suggesting, pundit E.J. Dionne archly writes, "perhaps, a rather elastic definition of 'family values' -- or a touching faith in Gingrich's repentance."

But all the reports from journalists in the field suggest that evangelical Gingrich voters paid little attention to religion or "values" issues at all. They probably still believe that infidelity and "open marriage" are as wrong as ever. They didn't seem to care if Newt had repented. And they weren't much concerned about Romney's self-enriching machinations at Bain Capital.

They opted for Newt, they told reporters over and over, because even though he may be morally wronger than Mitt, he seems stronger. He's not content merely to bloody Obama's nose. He intends to "knock him out." And he'll knock out the "liberal media elite" while he's at it -- especially when they ask him about his own "family values."

Why is "wronger but stronger" a winning formula? Clinton offered the crucial clue in the first words of his rule: "when people are insecure." Most Americans -- indeed, most people everywhere -- feel insecure when they don't think they can predict with any certainty what the next day will bring.

With no clear sense of the future, there's no way to know how your choices today will affect your life tomorrow. It's like wandering in the woods without a map. Every step feels like a random, aimless choice. That kind of uncertainty scares nearly all of us.

It scares the hell out of many of us -- especially those of us who can't be sure whether they'll still be getting a paycheck next month, or even next week. It makes the old-fashioned notion of hell, the place where adulterers go, seem to matter a lot less than the new hell -- the place where we wander aimlessly because we have no strong leaders to show us a clear path out of our mental and cultural wilderness.

Leaders look strong when they hold up a map, any map, and say, "Here's where we are now. Over there is where we ought to be. The path from here to there is the way out. Follow me!" It doesn't really matter where "here" and "there" are. It just has to be easy to see the contrast between the two. In politics, the key to victory is to make that contrast unmistakable. That's what assuages voters' feelings of confusion, what makes them believe that they know where they and what's going on, which is the whole point of the game.

The most effective way for any candidate to create a sense of absolute contrast is to use language that sounds like moral dualism: Wherever we are, "here" is really, really evil; wherever we want to go, "there" is really, really good. But first we must defeat the "evildoers," wherever and whoever they are. As long as we can identify some "evildoers," we know exactly where we are and who we are. We're in the U.S. of A, and we're the good guys.

Now the evangelical voters of South Carolina have reminded us that "good" and "bad" don't have to be defined in traditional moral terms. The candidate who can create the strongest contrast between any kind of "good" and "evil," even if he's been caught in some old-fashioned evildoing himself, will look like the strongest leader and emerge the winner.

Barack Obama's State of the Union address drew a stark contrast between the good 99 percent, the responsible Americans who work hard and play fair, and the evil 1 percent who get rich by breaking the moral rules. In my post before South Carolina, I suggested that that might be a winning card for the president, if he packaged it as "strong character," the traditional ethic of self-restraint. Now the pro-Newt evangelical gamecocks have sent the White House a message that old-fashioned notions of "character" may no longer matter very much.

If Gingrich continues to rise in the polls and win primaries, Obama will face a choice. He can stick to his old, bipartisan, above-the-fray persona and his bland "American values" formula. Or (though he's hardly known for asking Bill Clinton's advice) he can stake his re-election chances on the Clinton rule. He can play the strong leader by mounting an all-out attack against the super-rich and their GOP lackeys, blaming them (quite accurately) for blocking his very modest efforts to get the economy going again.

Obama already seems to be moving toward that kind of divisive campaign. His State of the Union address offered a good gauge of how rapidly he's moving.

If the GOP pushes him to a full-scale assault on the plutocratic evildoers, and if that language proves a winner on Election Day, we'll be in a very new political landscape, where "here" is the inequity of Gilded Age laissez-faire capitalism and "there" is more government intervention to even out the playing field. What path we might forge to get from here to there is anybody's guess. But at least we'll be drawing up some very new maps.

Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.