Gingrich vs. Romney shows GOP’s ‘cult of competence’

A couple weeks back I posited that, unlike the GOP’s multitudinous congressional and senatorial blood-bath primaries in 2010, where being tagged “new” or “grassroots” was about the only thing a conservative had to do to be nominated to office, conservative voters now are looking for more than sizzle and fresh-face sloganeering.

They want a Republican nominee who can prosecute the case against President Obama with equal parts understanding, insight and vim, and is fundamentally competent to the ungodly big task of reversing the ship of our struggling state.

More than ideology, more than conservative purity, more than having a really nice wardrobe and a “youbetcha” state of mind, in 2011/2012 Republicans want a man or woman who is up to the mighty task of the general election campaign — and up to the mightier task of the presidency.

I called it the “cult of competence” — the enlightened first cousin of our too-often fascination with the cult of personality.

Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry all, at various points along the way, fell prey to this new life force in the GOP — Pawlenty, because he couldn’t prosecute the case against Romney (which understandably made people wonder how he could make the case against Obama); Bachman, because she fumbled and faux-pased so much that, fairly or not, she got stuck with the perception that she was little more than Sarah Palin 2.0; and Perry, who perhaps most famously of all, squandered a fast-lane to the nomination by displaying a shocking lack of preparedness. Herman Cain ultimately bowed out for different reasons, but this cult of competence was hot on his trail, too.

In this whipsaw pre-primary, the cult of competence has been the gravitation center of the race.

Part of the reason for this is, I think, lessons learned from 2010. Nevada primary voters in particular should get a lump of coal in their stocking for the next six years, as punishment for nominating the only living, breathing person who couldn’t beat a mortally wounded and hugely unpopular Harry Reid.

Another reason for the ascendancy of competence in the mind of the public rests in the fact that Republicans, hungry to win, know we’ve got to nominate someone who’s intrinsically capable of beating the ruthlessly effective Obama machine.

Last, and most compellingly, Republicans want competence above all because they want someone who can fix the mess in Washington.

Now, just a month before the first 2012 votes get cast, the ultimate manifestation of this gravitational center is making an appearance in the form of Newt vs. Mitt.

If you would have predicted in December 2010 that the race would settle out as a choice between a washed-out former House speaker with a history of personal peccadillos, a professional vitae that includes lobbying for Fannie and Freddie and a personal penchant for big-time self-aggrandizement and the ultimate East Coast establishment insider with a history of changing his mind — well, you would have been relegated to a different kind of white house — one with padded walls.

Two establishment dudes are the main choice for conservatives? It’s hard to imagine.

But here we are — it is Mitt vs. Newt, and there is a reason why. Both men are, at root, competent, capable people who, in the face of very real imperfections, have got governing gravitas in spades.

Have you have heard anyone wonder or worry whether either Gingrich or Romney has the juice to stand on stage next to Obama during the big debates next fall? No way.

Have you ever heard anyone — even in the cynical, Obama-slobbery media — question whether Newt or Mitt are up to the job of being leader of the free world? Is there any doubt that either man is up to the task of taking that 2 a.m. call and making the right decision before 2:30?

The answer is an emphatic, “No.”

Competence is the core appeal of Romney and Gingrich. They have been pulled by this new gravitational force to the front of the GOP pack — imperfections and all. Their ascendency is proof positive of the decisive import of the Grand Old Party’s grand new commitment to picking the right person — a commitment to putting competence on stage next to the ultimate cult of personality during the contest next fall.

Josh Penry is a former Colorado Senate minority leader and a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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