By George Will
And silence, like a poultice, comes
To heal the blows of sound.
– Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
WASHINGTON – This year, Christmas itself is a present. It is the gift of an absence, a respite from the Republican presidential clamors. The pitiless cacophony resumes today, so consider some gleanings from history before actual voters, those nuisances, intrude on the political conversation and actually make some history.
The current Republican front-runner, Newt Gingrich, has not held elective office since he was ousted as speaker by a mutiny in his own House caucus 14 years ago. Leave aside the five presidents who had never held elective office before entering the White House. (William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover had held Cabinet offices; Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower had been Army generals.) Only two of the other presidents were elected after an electoral hiatus as long as Gingrich’s:
In eight of the 14 years between his service in the Continental Congress and the presidency, George Washington kept busy winning the Revolutionary War. And in the 17 years between John Quincy Adams’ service in the Senate and the presidency, he was minister to Russia and to Great Britain, and secretary of state. Since 1998, Gingrich has been a businessman and a historian for Freddie Mac.
Gingrich, who has been elected to nothing since 1996 – the year “Braveheart” won the Academy Award for Best Picture and the Internet was used by just 45 million people worldwide – says he is more electable than Mitt Romney. Even if true, this claim might be a Gingrich rarity: a minimalist boast.
Jonathan Last of The Weekly Standard notes that Romney’s first foray into electoral politics was the 1994 Republican primary for the nomination to run for the Senate against Ted Kennedy. Romney won that primary, then lost to Kennedy by 17 points while Republicans were gaining 52 seats to end 40 years of Democratic control of the House of Representatives. Counting that primary, and primaries – but not caucuses – during his 2008 quest for the Republican presidential nomination, Romney has been in 22 contests. His record is 5 wins and 17 losses, a winning percentage of .227, which is worse than the .250 of the 40 wins, 120 losses 1962 Mets. Furthermore, Last notes that while Romney did win the governorship of blue Massachusetts in 2002, Republicans had won the three previous gubernatorial races starting in 1990, and his percentage of the vote (49.8) was the lowest of the four.
The electability of a third top-tier candidate in Iowa may depend on the elements. In 1588, what is remembered as the “Protestant wind” disrupted Catholic Spain’s armada that had set sail to menace Protestant England. Nature’s caprice proved, to those who already believed it, that God favored the Reformation. On Jan. 3, 2012, a “Libertarian snow” of, say, eight inches on Iowa could be construed – and would be by those who are already believers – as proof that God favors Ron Paul.
This is so because Paul seems to have the most motivated supporters, those least likely to allow a wee blizzard to keep them from attending the caucuses to advance the holy cause of repealing the 1913 Federal Reserve Act. They share the intensity of their candidate, whose criticism of contemporary American government is much the most comprehensive of all the candidates. Indeed, it could hardly be more sweeping: It encompasses foreign as well as domestic overreaching, as he sees it.
Paul probably cannot be elected president, but neither could Eugene Debs or Norman Thomas. They campaigned as socialists, not expecting to win the presidency but hoping to expand the menu of topics that were politically debatable, which they did.
Debs ran in 1900, 1904, 1908 and 1912, and in 1920 from prison, where the progressive Woodrow Wilson administration had sent him for violating the Espionage Act by speaking against World War I. (President Warren Harding, who is as despised by today’s progressive intelligentsia as Wilson is adored, commuted Debs’ sentence and invited him to the White House.) Thomas ran in six consecutive elections, 1928-48.
In one form or another, significant portions of what Debs and Thomas advocated became law under the New Deal and later. Paul’s aim, like theirs, has been to force certain topics (e.g., the Federal Reserve system, foreign policy retrenchment) into the political argument.
An argument that was stilled for one day. Merry Christmas.
George Will’s email address is email@example.com. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group