Publisher's Note — February 16, 2012, 11:00 am

The Uses of a Long G.O.P. Contest (for the Democrats)

John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the Providence Journal on February 15, 2012.

In a recession-bruised country starved for humor, the Republican primaries are a gift from heaven, especially when the debates involve religion and morality. The biggest laughs come out of Newt Gingrich’s struggles with sexuality and marriage, and how they’re contrasted with Mitt Romney’s allegedly perfect relationship with his wife. Having labeled state-sanctioned unions between homosexuals as evidence of “the rise of paganism” and “a fundamental violation of our civilization,” Gingrich has redoubled his boosting of heterosexual marriage and fidelity, on hiatus since his glory days of attacking Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. But many voters know how strenuously Gingrich has chafed at the bonds of matrimony, and so he must answer to charges of hypocrisy.

Gingrich’s response has been to issue a sort of pre-presidential signing statement, which may be the weirdest document to emerge from the recent GOP bloodletting. Driven by an unquenchable lust for votes in Iowa, the former House speaker endorsed the “Marriage Vow Pledge,” the brainchild of the Christian moralizer Bob Vander Plaats, who heads the right-wing evangelical group The Family Leader. But Gingrich didn’t just promise to “uphold the institution of marriage through personal fidelity to my spouse”; he also felt it necessary to pledge his “respect for the marital bonds of others.” Isn’t this a little odd? Once you’ve signed on to the former precept, doesn’t the latter go without saying? Gingrich’s no-straying promise strikes me as insincere, just like the signing statements so popular with former President Bush and now with President Obama, which in essence say, “I’ll sign this bill into law, but I reserve the right not to respect or enforce it.”

Then again, no poaching on married women—since one wife should be the maximum allowed—might be evidence of Gingrich’s tactical genius. The elephant in the Republican confessional (Gingrich is a convert to Catholicism, while Rick Santorum was born into it) is Romney’s Mormonism, which to many Southern Baptists and some other Protestants is a fake Christian sect based on blasphemy. It’s hard enough for Bible-thumpers to tolerate the Mormon belief in two sacred texts—the King James Bible and the Latter-Day Saints’ own Book of Mormon—but what really bothers the Protestants is the suspicion that some of Romney’s co-religionists still secretly “respect” the former Mormon practice of polygamy, officially disavowed by the church in 1890. It’s not for no reason that Mitt needs to advertise his exclusive marital relationship. The seven other wives hidden out back in the guest house would make excellent material for Jon Stewart, not to mention the scriptwriters for the “anybody but Romney” crusade.

Things could get even funnier as the Republican campaign drags on. For example, if Romney’s Mormonism gets more attention, his agents might opt for even lower humor and begin questioning Gingrich/Santorum’s loyalty to the U.S. Constitution, just as antipapists questioned whether ?John F. Kennedy would exhibit divided loyalty between Rome and Washington.

Still, I wonder, is the Republican infighting really so ridiculous, or even that useful for the Democrats? After months of televised debates and tens of millions of dollars’ worth of advertising, at least we have some notion of where the various factions of the American right stand on the issues. Put aside the nonsense and you recognize that you’re witnessing a genuine argument.

Romney, representing the remnants of the former Republican establishment, is fighting an intra-party proxy war against factions that want to repeat the Goldwater revolt of 1964. In those days Romney’s liberal Republican father, George, urged the party to reject the Tea Party of his day, the Goldwater puritan/libertarians, while his son feels obliged to appease them. At the party’s most extreme end, the antitax, antigovernment faction so hates Romney’s old-fashioned ideas about government and taxes—his bland acceptance of Social Security, Medicare, and the minimum wage—that they prefer to see Barack Obama re-elected rather than accept a possible eight years of centrist Romney, whom they view as a socialist. Better to promote a new champion in 2016.

Assuming he becomes the nominee, Romney will endure humiliation from the radical right at the Republican National Convention, just as George H.W. Bush was forced to permit Pat Buchanan’s militant speech in Houston in 1992. And again, the liberals will laugh at Republicans’ disarray. But do the Democrats offer a salutary alternative? What does Obama’s lack of primary opposition contribute to the debate? For now, all the serious criticism of Obama’s status-quo politics—his failure to reform anything important—is coming indirectly from the Republican right. Rick Perry called Romney’s private-equity work “vulture capitalism” while Gingrich calls it “exploitive.” Ron Paul alone delivers trenchant critiques of the war in Afghanistan and the brewing war against Iran. You can even argue that Mitt Romney is at least as strong a defender of Social Security as Obama. Although Romney says he wants to repeal “Obamacare,’’ he created essentially the same plan for Massachusetts.

Meanwhile, hypocrisy reigns in both parties about the capital-gains tax. (The president’s new proposal to increase it to 20 percent is purely symbolic because it can’t be passed.) While pundits and leftists bemoaned the unfairness of Romney’s 13.9 percent overall federal tax rate, no one bothered to point out Romney’s personal debt to Obama and the Democrats. Obama campaigned in 2008 for an increase in the capital-gains rate, to 25 percent from 15 percent, to restore some fairness to a system in which hedge-fund and private-equity partners claim their personal earned income as capital gains instead of ordinary income taxed at 35 percent. But once in office, with a solid Democratic majority in both houses, Obama let the whole thing drop, no doubt because of opposition from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus and then-Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd. Baucus and Dodd raised a lot of money for their party from private-equity and hedge-fund partners. Why upset the people who pay for the campaigns?

It’s too late to launch a Democratic primary campaign, but for the country’s sake I hope the Republican nomination fight drags on to the bitter end, and that Obama gets a run for his money.

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