Although Newt Gingrich has dominated the headlines since Saturday night, what happened in the South Carolina primary is less about Gingrich’s rise than it is about Mitt Romney’s fall. The right's determination to find anyone other than Romney—illustrated over the last eight months by the hot flashes of support for Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain—has become desperate to the point that evangelicals supported a twice-divorced man who, by the account of one of his discarded spouses, aspired to manage a small harem. Moreover, they’re so frantic to be rid of Romney that they implicitly sanctioned Gingrich’s attacks against the former Massachusetts governor's personal financial gain. Thus the front-runner founders on the very finances that provided his candidacy a rationale.
But Romney’s problem isn’t how much money he has. His problem is how he made it, how he’s kept it, and how come he won’t talk about it. If Romney’s campaign for the presidency should collapse, the beginning of its end will not have been January 21, 2012, but September 17, 2011. That’s the day when, in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, someone held up a sign that read "WE ARE THE 99%"—the kind of math that’s foreign to those on the other side of the income divide, who reserve such percentages for things more profitable than sociology. In itself, the electorate doesn’t begrudge a president his bank account, but Romney, who is reportedly worth a quarter of a billion dollars, is rich even by the standard of Kennedys. As depicted so vividly in the notorious photo of the candidate as a young man surrounded by fellow sharkettes grinning at the camera with fistfuls of currency, Romney has become the incarnation of those who made their fortunes stripping others of smaller and more vulnerable nest eggs.
Now the question that attends Romney is: What about his finances was he so unwilling to reveal that he would as soon forgo the presidency? More than Cayman Island bank accounts and talk of $10,000 bets and the euphoric highs of firing people and corporations that are people and the pocket change of $375,000 speaking fees and the politics of “envy” and how income disparity should be discussed only in quiet rooms behind closed doors, Romney’s kicking-and-screaming reluctance to disclose his tax returns has been disastrous. If the financial revelations promised for tomorrow turn out not to be damaging, that reluctance will be all the more mysterious and may only raise new questions. If we learn that not only has Romney paid nothing close to the 35 percent that Republicans complain is too high, or the 25 percent for which Republicans lobby, or any rate resembling what's paid by anyone reading these words, but instead virtually nothing due to capital-gains advantages built into the tax code, there may continue to flourish within the Republican contest a discussion about money that, up until a week and a half ago, was entirely antithetical to Republican politics.
Even Republican voters who can’t admit it to themselves know that both Romney and Gingrich are phonies, but what became obvious in South Carolina is the extent to which Gingrich is the more gifted phony. Like all successful nihilists, Gingrich has honed the art of half believing what he says when he says it. His genius—a word not used lightly here, because no other word conveys the breathtaking expedience of a Machiavellian intelligence yoked to a soul that would unleash a swarm of locusts if you cracked it open—is to have identified the arguments that would be used against Romney by the Democrats this fall and then to use them first. This accounts for the baffled fury with which a conservative base that otherwise loathes Romney felt compelled to defend him against Gingrich’s “populism,” at least at first.
Ever since Republicans found themselves opposing a payroll tax cut, the issue of taxes—which the party has owned at least since the Internal Revenue Code was established under Franklin Roosevelt—has grown more at odds with what has emerged as the party’s paramount principle: the protection of the wealthy. Even the threat of massive defense cuts, made part of the debt-ceiling deal last summer by Democrats who naively assumed that Republicans never would allow them to take place, can’t shake the Republicans' resolve to protect the rich. Those who suggest that Republicans have been outmaneuvered on taxes give both parties too much credit. Republicans are where they mean to be, their commitment to the extraordinarily prosperous at the expense of everything else, including national security, hardly a matter of clumsy footwork. It’s a matter of conviction.
Until recently it’s been easy to overthink the dynamics of this election, which were simple. If a collective, visceral sense took hold this fall that a corner has been turned economically, the incumbent would be re-elected. For the president, the cautiously encouraging signs of the past few months may be the onset of such a resurrection, or they could backfire badly if things turn south again, in which case the implosion of public morale will be such that it would have been better for Barack Obama if the uptick never had taken place. If the public were to conclude that the challenger is better able to “fix” the economy—which is to say put more people back to work—the incumbent would be turned out. Against that formulation all other considerations having to do with “authenticity” verge on the meaningless.
The electorate always has had tolerance for effective opportunists; more than 40 years ago, Richard Nixon became president not despite opportunism but because of it, his cravenness a guarantee that the public could count on him to find a way out of the hated Vietnam War if only to serve his own ambition. Now those dynamics are complicated because the concern over jobs vies with something deeper. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll several months ago reported, among the usual right-track/wrong-track data, the most unprecedented and potentially revolutionary statistic of our lifetimes: Three out of four Americans now believe that the vaunted capitalist system is rigged against them in favor of the very affluent. Since World War II, even in times of economic distress, the public never before has lost faith in either capitalism’s efficiency or its ethos.
Going into a Florida primary that is of even more cataclysmic consequence than South Carolina’s, both Romney and Gingrich have different needles to thread. In the case of the former, it’s a defense of capitalism that still comes to grips with the newly salient issue of income inequity. In the case of the latter, it’s a claim on the inequality issue that still fiercely defends the principles of capitalism. Someone as smart as Gingrich and maybe even Romney must be registering that the Republican establishment’s once tried and true “class warfare” argument sounds increasingly hollow to besieged middle-class voters who believe there indeed has been a class war in the last 30 years, and it’s been against them. Over recent weeks, some of Occupy’s savvier leaders privately have mused that the ultimate dispersion of its crowds in the streets last fall was in fact a stroke of luck, saving the movement from degenerating into Woodstock and allowing it to now regroup, consider its objectives, and harness an enduring appeal to a middle class that otherwise would be put off by sex, drugs, and rock & roll, not to mention shitting on police cars.
We’ll find out this election whether the Republican vision of an unfettered capitalism—one that redefines “socialism” as not state ownership of the means of mass production but any government involvement whatsoever in the social and economic life of the country (including saving the auto industry)—is one that the public accepts anymore. Pundits have argued that the central question of the campaign is how much government we want. It’s more profound than that. The question of this election is what it means to be a country—whether we’re 300 million free agents who happen to be roaming the same piece of real estate or if any of us is ever bound by a social compact.