The key to NR was that William F. Buckley was at the helm. He was, for better or worse, the closest thing the conservative movement had to a true spokesman among the chattering classes. Buckley was one of the last of the public intellectuals and he enjoyed the jousting. NR also featured some interesting writers who weren't necessarily there for polemics, including the perceptive critic Terry Teachout and the acerbic back page columnist, Florence King.
What Buckley was never able to do, though, was find a successor. Buckley is gone, of course. And for me, National Review has been a dicey proposition for a long time now. I read the online version from time to time, but the writers it employs these days aren't appreciably better than what is available elsewhere.
That said, NR still has a strong presence on the conservative scene and it has now offered its view on the campaign. And we are told that Newt Gingrich should be straight out:
During his time as Speaker, he was one of the most unpopular figures in public life. Just a few months ago his campaign seemed dead after a series of gaffes and resignations. That Gingrich now tops the polls is a tribute to his perseverance, and to Republicans’ admiration for his intellectual fecundity.
Both qualities served conservatives well in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Gingrich, nearly alone, saw the potential for a Republican takeover of Congress and worked tirelessly to bring it about. Even before the takeover, Gingrich helped to solidify the party’s opposition to tax increases and helped to defeat the Clinton health-care plan. The victory of 1994 enabled the passage of welfare reform, the most successful social policy of recent decades.
Gingrich’s colleagues were, however, right to bring his tenure to an end. His character flaws — his impulsiveness, his grandiosity, his weakness for half-baked (and not especially conservative) ideas — made him a poor Speaker of the House. Again and again he combined incendiary rhetoric with irresolute action, bringing Republicans all the political costs of a hardline position without actually taking one. Again and again he put his own interests above those of the causes he championed in public.
Hard to argue with any of that, but I wonder if the words will mean much in the current environment. Newt is doing well for one reason only -- he's the only candidate out there that seems to have the throw weight to slug it out with Barack Obama. To the extent that I have been paying attention, it seems like the goal of the entire campaign has been to get the unruly rank and file to learn to love Mitt Romney. The problem is that Mitt isn't especially lovable. NR's editors say this:
Governor Romney won our endorsement last time, in part because some of the other leading candidates were openly hostile to important elements of conservatism. He is highly intelligent and disciplined, and he takes conservative positions on all the key issues. We still think he would make a fine president, but time and ceaseless effort have not yet overcome conservative voters’ skepticism about the liberal aspects of his record and his managerial disposition.
That skepticism hasn't abated thus far. If anything, it's increased. As a practical matter, Mitt Romney has been running for president for at least six years now and, if anything, he's farther away from making the sale today than he was at this point in 2008. That's not a failure to communicate. That's a failure to show the leadership he supposedly has.
I know Barack Obama has to go. But I'm not sure that any Republicans in the race are ready to deal with the horrific mess they would face in 2013.