Newt Gingrich spoke for everyone in America when he asked during the NBC News-Facebook New Hampshire debate, "Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?" Gingrich was talking to Mitt Romney, but let his exasperated call reach President Obama and leaders in Congress and let it ring in the ears of all the GOP candidates on that stage. Newt Gingrich is not immune to the request. Any candidate who says his adultery came in part from loving the country too much knows how to slice that baloney thick and wriggling.
Gingrich's call may have been a little rude, but it represents progress. Fifteen debates and finally the exchanges are getting a little more frank, a little more serious, and inching towards some identifiable lines of reason. The candidates are talking about the leadership attributes necessary to be president and pressing each other on their qualities. They are actually debating, owning up to their arguments, and stating them clearly. In prior debates, the candidates merely recited their stump speeches in parallel. Or they sniped over useful things like Mitt Romney's lawn care company.
There are two kinds of pious baloney (at least). One is the lunch meat you hurl at your opponents or dish out to cover up a shortcoming. When Gingrich called himself a small businessman during questions over his payments from Freddie Mac, this was pious baloney. He wanted to align himself with the noble, dry-cleaning Mom and Pop to duck being charged as an influence peddler. So too when he inveighed against highly paid Washington commentators, in the last debate, since he was one. This is called politics. Sometimes politics requires a dash of pious baloney during negotiations, public ceremonies, and other times that call for mild prevarication. Mostly, though, it's regrettable and we'd all like to see less of it.
Then there is the pious baloney that points to a deep character flaw. It is that posture you take easily, frequently, and dishonestly on all manner of issues because you have no core and you're constantly re-characterizing your motivations and positions.
This second type of baloney is what has dogged Romney this entire campaign. Some conservatives don't think he has a core. Romney said in Sunday morning’s debate that he's gotten more conservative as he's grown older, but if he has no core, how do voters believe him?
It is one thing to be accused of this condition, it is more damaging to mint fresh product during a debate with everyone watching. Hillary Clinton did this in the 2008 primary on the issue of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants. She took two positions during a debate and denied the inconsistency. Romney may have done a version of this on Sunday.
When asked about the super PAC ads attacking Gingrich, Romney at first said, “I haven’t seen ‘em.” It was a part of his larger effort to distance himself from the attacks being made on his behalf. But moments later he was able to recite, in considerable detail, the exact criticisms in "the ad I saw." It didn't seem plausible that a man who was so distanced from these super PAC ads could detail their claims with such specificity.
This is where Gingrich's pious baloney charge comes in. Romney was under attack for being malleable. If he'd been such a good governor, Rick Santorum asked, why didn't he run for office again? "Why did you bail out?" asked Santorum. "I go and fight the fight. If it was that important to the people of Massachusetts that you were going to go and fight for them, at least you can stand up."
Under attack for lacking the courage of his convictions, Romney tried to pivot. "Run again? That would be about me. I was trying to help get the state into the best shape as I possibly could—left the world of politics, went back into business." This was a whopper and Gingrich called him on it, pointing out at length that Romney didn't suddenly develop a yen for becoming a citizen when he left office in 2007 and started his presidential campaign for the 2008 cycle.
This might have sounded like a standard debate about flip-flopping and hypocrisy. Actually it was an important debate about what makes a good leader. When Romney makes the case about Washington politicians who want to get re-elected, he is making a character charge—they are self-dealing careerists—but he is also arguing that the Washington worldview limits them.
In the debate the night before, for example, Romney argued that only Washington politicians would call him a mere "manager" for having been a CEO. They just didn’t understand the world of the real economy and all of the leadership skill it takes to run a business. “I wish people in Washington had the experience of going out and working in the real economy first, before they went there, and they’d understand some of the real lessons of leadership,” said Romney, who argues that business experience is a necessary requirement for improving the economy as president.
Santorum and Gingrich offer a different kind of leadership. The experience they present entails working within the political system to move the country in their chosen direction. Gingrich has the better case. He's done more, and he offered a strong argument for how you can lead and work with the other party even when you are trying to defeat its leaders in elections. “As speaker I was negotiating with Bill Clinton. He knew I wanted him to be a one-term president. And we got a lot of things done, including welfare reform … the first tax cut in 16 years, 4.2 percent unemployment, and four straight years of a balanced budget.”
Jon Huntsman’s brand of leadership contains Romney-like executive leadership from his time as a governor, and he also made the case that he is not a part of the political class that trades insults and acts for electoral gain. Taking umbrage at Romney's criticism from the night before that he had worked for President Obama as ambassador to China, Huntsman said he was offended that his public service and duty to country was so devalued. It was that kind of attack, he argued, that has made politics a zero-sum game in which nothing gets done. It was his strongest debate so far and the best articulation of his candidacy. It will win him the support of editorial pages, but it's not clear Republicans will reward him for it in the primary on Tuesday.
Will any of this talk of leadership and baloney affect the nomination? Romney has a formidable organization and a lot of money. His rivals continue to shine in ways that will make each of them plausible and attractive to voters trying to find an alternative to Mitt Romney, which will lead them to continue to split the vote and give Romney an edge. The attacks may have damaged him a little but they weren’t sustained. To overcome his expected win in New Hampshire—which will boost his air of inevitability—his rivals are going to have to make “pious baloney” synonymous with Mitt Romney.