Gingrich Campaign Taps Into Voter Resentment

Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are scrambling to tie up votes in Florida, which holds its winner-take-all primary next Tuesday. Steve Inskeep talks to conservative writer David Frum about the state of the GOP race.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This hasn't been a good week to be a Mitt Romney supporter. After losing in South Carolina to Newt Gingrich, Romney is in brutal fight over Florida, which conservative writer David Frum has watched with dismay.

Frum has written favorably of Romney, but says Gingrich is connecting right now with primary voters.

DAVID FRUM: Gingrich has very powerfully expressed a lot of emotions and resentments and frustrations that a lot of Republican voters feel. But he doesn't have the organization to turn those feelings into an actual capture of the nomination and a capture of the presidency.

INSKEEP: So you seem to think that Gingrich is tapping into very real concerns, very real resentments, and yet you have written in recent days that you think his actual arguments are intellectually dishonest.

FRUM: Look, the job of politicians is to find something that is real in the way that people feel, and then offer them something that is real by way of solution. But if you don't offer something real by way of solution, if you simply channel those feelings, then the politician is not doing the politician's job, which is to turn authentic feelings into workable answers.

INSKEEP: You've been very critical of Newt Gingrich, and yet you've written in recent days that you think he understands this party very well. What is it that Newt Gingrich understands very well about the Republican Party?

FRUM: Well, Mitt Romney - who's a candidate I like a lot more - has a kind of technocratic cast of mind. There's a linguist named Deborah Tannen who says that one of the ways that men and women go wrong is that a woman will tell a man about a problem she's got, and the man will immediately begin to offer a solution. And she doesn't really want the solution. She can think of the solution for herself. What she wants to hear is some kind of understanding and validation of how she feels. Don't be so quick...

INSKEEP: I've been in this conversation.

FRUM: OK, don't be so quick to offer the answer Mr. Smart Guy. Just listen for a few minutes first. Well, I think that in many ways what we're having here is a Deborah Tannen moment between the Republican base and Mitt Romney.

The Republican base says: We're angry. We're frustrated. We're embarrassed. And Mitt Romney says, OK, I've got my, literally, 59-point plan. And by the way, it's a very smart plan, but that's not what those primary voters are really expressing right now.

INSKEEP: And so Gingrich understands that and is able to tap into their unease, if that's the right word.

FRUM: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Bret Stephens, who writes for the Wall Street Journal, wrote an incendiary article, an angry article saying that the GOP deserves to lose this election. He was not complimentary of any of the remaining candidates, and he referred to Mitt Romney - the one you say you like a lot better - as a hollow man.

FRUM: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Is that fair?

FRUM: That's not fair. Look, Mitt Romney has the kind of qualities that I think a lot of us would like to see in a president. He's judicious. He's very smart. He's cautious, and he makes decisions based on a wide range of information.

The reason people will describe him in this way is because he's not able to channel the rage that is felt by many of Republicans, because he doesn't feel that kind of rage. But I tend to think that that's one of the things that I like about him. I mean, the passions that you're hearing from the Republican base are not good descriptions of reality and they are not good guides...

INSKEEP: What's an example of what you are talking about?

FRUM: Well, I did a radio show the other day with a very Republican radio station, and the host was telling me, this country is on the edge of an apocalypse. You know, look, actually, the country's sort of climbing back from an apocalypse. An apocalypse is kind of strong and that kind of overwrought feeling that yeah, there's nothing ahead but decline and extinction for America. That's no way for a candidate to think, because it's not true.

INSKEEP: You were arguing that in order to express the anxiety that a lot of Americans feel, you can most easily do that by saying things that are just not factually true.

FRUM: Well, the great politicians, the great leaders are people who, at moments where the country has real reasons for fear and unease and resentment and anger, take those feelings and they re-channel them, redirect them in ways that can lead to solutions.

And at the end of that process, the people can look back and say that the leader - and the reason we admire these leaders is, yeah, we had a lot of feelings in 1933 or in 1981 that could have taken this country in an ugly direction. And you responded to the way we felt, and then you led us to a positive place, not to a negative place.

INSKEEP: When you said 1933 and 1981, you're talking about President Franklin Roosevelt, Present Ronald Reagan.

FRUM: That's right.

INSKEEP: And you're acknowledging that Mitt Romney just isn't there?

FRUM: Well, Mitt Romney has the answers. I mean, the challenge for Romney is he's not good at connecting with the feelings, but he would be very good at leading the country to a more positive space. But the reason that a lot of the Republican base is having trouble with him is he's not connecting with them.

David Frum is a columnist for "The Daily Beast" and "Newsweek." Thanks very much.

Thanks.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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