Newt Gingrich probably thought he was being smart when a week ago he publicly rejected the budget plan put forward by House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan. After all, Ryan's idea to change Medicare into a voucher program is profoundly unpopular, particularly with the seniors now enjoying the program's benefits. So when Gingrich went on Meet the Press and responded to a question about the Ryan Medicare plan by saying, "I don't think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering," it probably felt politically shrewd. He could distance himself from an unpopular idea and position himself not as the partisan bomb-thrower people used to consider him but as the innovative, post-partisan thinker he fancies himself to be.
It might have been a reasonable strategy -- in a different era. But in 2011, identity defines politics more than ever. Gingrich's mistake was his failure to understand that particularly at this stage of the race, no question is more important for a presidential candidate to answer than this: Are you one of us?
This question is crucial for both progressives and conservatives. Politics in America is deeply tribal and always has been. But in today's political world, the right has a more highly developed system of policing its ideological borders. And since only Republicans have a primary race this election, that system is operating more swiftly, efficiently, and effectively than anything the left could dream of.
What the right has -- as Gingrich discovered last week to his chagrin -- is a ruthless identity border patrol, with agents spread throughout the political system. Step over any one of a number of lines, even lines that didn't exist just weeks ago, and those agents will inform you, with all the subtlety of a truncheon to the kneecaps, that you are no longer within the conservative nation. "For Republicans running for president in 2012, there's a new political reality: Support Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan -- or else," wrote the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza. "Newt Gingrich learned that lesson the hard way." And did he ever. "A candidate who is timid on entitlement reforms is not qualified to be president," wrote Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe of FreedomWorks, a group that trains and organizes Tea Partiers, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. "He's done," Charles Krauthammer declared on Fox News. "He didn't have a big chance from the beginning, but now it's over." Republicans in Congress lined up to condemn the former speaker, who, it must be said, already had more than a few enemies on the right and handed Democrats a juicy video clip they'll be sure to use in future ads ("Even Newt Gingrich called the Ryan plan 'right-wing social engineering'").
As much as liberals like to imagine the right as a hierarchically organized, smoothly humming machine, the truth is that their system is diffuse, much more like a school of fish than one giant shark. A variety of players influence the school's course: politicians, media figures, activists, and advocates. It isn't a conspiracy in which orders are delivered from above. If there really were a conspiracy, it would be headed by someone with enough sense to say, "This Medicare plan is really risky. Let's not make it a litmus test."
But no one has that ability, particularly in a party that is still both in thrall to and terrified of the Tea Party. After mounting successful primary challenges against sitting Republicans in 2010, the Tea Party has settled comfortably into its role as the vanguard of the Republican identity border patrol, deciding who is and who isn't a conservative in good standing. Some Tea Party challenges for 2012 are already materializing (Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, respected on both sides of the aisle after 35 years in office, is likely to be booted by his Tea Party opponent), while even hard-right conservatives like Orrin Hatch are forced to abase themselves before the border patrol agents to demonstrate their bona fides.
The candidates seeking the presidency know that their standing as true conservatives is always at risk, that the gaze of the border patrol agents could fall on them at any moment. A few years ago, support for an individual health-insurance mandate and a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions were reasonable conservative positions; today, having ever entertained those ideas will get you branded as something other than a real conservative. This leaves the GOP presidential candidates in a bind because most of them embraced one or both in the past; now they have to sink to their knees and beg for forgiveness. In the case of the Ryan plan, something that didn't exist just a few weeks ago has to some become nearly as central to conservative identity as opposition to abortion or taxes. For his criticism, Gingrich found it necessary to go on a humiliating contrition tour, first calling Ryan to apologize, then appearing on Rush Limbaugh's program to make the bizarre assertion that he wasn't even talking about the Ryan budget on Meet the Press, that he would have voted for it, and that he and Paul Ryan are buddies.
The other candidates are doing their best to assure conservatives that they're on board, while simultaneously trying to avoid the political stain. Jon Huntsman said he would have voted for the Ryan plan. Mitt Romney tied himself in a knot about it, saying, "The Ryan plan and my plan are on the same page, we have the same objectives," while leaving himself an out: "My plan is different than his, it's not identical. But I applaud the fact that he put forward a plan." Tim Pawlenty too has been careful to avoid criticizing Ryan's plan, though he promises to deliver one of his own soon.
The candidates have little choice but to tread gingerly, because at this early stage of the presidential race, most of the people they encounter are party activists who have deputized themselves in the identity border patrol. Going from living room to VFW hall in Iowa eight months before the caucuses, they won't be talking to independent voters. They will be courting partisans who care deeply about questions of identity. In some primary elections, the discussion among partisans might concern electability, or experience, or competence. But not this year. After constructing their opposition to Barack Obama around the idea that the president isn't really American -- either literally a foreigner or practically one by virtue of philosophy and record -- today's Republicans are acutely tuned to detect any whiff of heresy and concerned most deeply with which candidate lives deepest within the heart of their tribe.
There are plenty of activists on the left who would like nothing more than to have the same power the right's base has. But they don't. None of the components of the liberal base -- union members, minorities, non-Christians (those of other faiths and the secular), urbanites, single people -- inspires even a shadow of the fear in Democratic elites that the Tea Party, the Christian right, or gun advocates produce in the Republican elite. Nor do progressive media figures have anything comparable to the power within their movement that someone like Rush Limbaugh has (try to imagine Democratic leaders being forced to make groveling apologies to Rachel Maddow for criticizing her, the way Republican leaders have when they stepped out of line and criticized Limbaugh). That fear is evidence of the multiple veto points within the conservative system, the fact that many people have the power to make life miserable for Republicans who don't stay within the borders.
Identity lies at the core of politics, no matter what your ideology. It's the reason candidates portray themselves as coming from humble beginnings and feeling at home among regular folks or say they have "[insert our state name here] values" and their opponent doesn't. It underlies all the key political divides we have -- North versus South, urban versus rural, the "heartland" versus the coasts. It is behind every attack on the "elite," whether from the left or the right and whether offered honestly or not. It's written all through human history, from the first moment a hominid tribe decided that there were others of their kind who were outsiders and could not be trusted.
And Newt Gingrich knows it as well as anyone. When he said that Barack Obama "is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together" who the president is, he was just the latest version of the homo erectus grunting to his tribesmen that his rival has been seen visiting that cave on the other side of the valley and therefore must be slain lest the tribe be contaminated. But he failed to pay close enough attention to where the borders of identity had moved, and he paid the price. It will not be the last time in this election cycle that a candidate's identity as a member of the tribe is challenged.