There are really only two basic kinds of politicians: leaders and followers. That might sound overly simplistic, but as is so often the case, sometimes the simplest of descriptions turn out to be the most true.
Followers look at the people they want to win votes from, figure out what it is they want and tailor their opinions to match. This particular type of politician was described perfectly by 19th century French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, who famously said, “There go my people. I must find out where they are going, so that I can lead them.”
When we think of politicians, this is the type of person we usually think about. Followers are the flip-flop artists, they are the people who govern by polls and grope for the center of American politics in an attempt to be as popular as possible. This can certainly result in success, just ask former President Bill Clinton, the famous triangulation artist.
But aye, there’s the rub. The mob that the followers seek to represent often can be wrong.
That’s where the leaders come in. Leaders believe it is their duty to not only follow popular opinion, but to sometimes shape it. These people are the brave rebels who have the courage to stand in the face of what is popular and say “no.”
This was dramatically on display in Tuesday night’s Republican debate, when three candidates spoke to millions of people who wanted to hear something, and told them something different. These three were Ron Paul (as always), Jon Huntsman and much to my surprise, Newt Gingrich.
It was Gingrich who was especially impressive. Huntsman has virtually no support, so he isn’t risking a lot by standing up to Republican primary voters, and Ron Paul isn’t on a quest for the presidency, he is trying to fundamentally change the party. But Gingrich has suddenly vaulted into the top tier of candidates and is either leading or tied with Mitt Romney in most of the early primary states, which means he has a lot to lose by going against the grain.
But there he was, when asked about immigration and the border, doing just that.
When presented with any question about immigration, all any Republican has to do to make the crowd happy is gurgle out something about “secure the border” and then complain about amnesty. It is the easiest question, with the easiest answer, and candidates who deviate from that program are punished severely by voters.
Yet Gingrich shocked the audience, and me, by calling for a “humane approach” to the problem.
“The party that says it is the party of the family,” he said, “is going to adopt an immigration policy that is going to destroy families that have been here for a quarter century, and I’m prepared to take the heat for saying let’s be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship, but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families.”
The sad part is that virtually every candidate on the stage that night agrees with not only the sentiment, but the content of what Gingrich said. No serious candidate for the presidency believes it is even feasible to identify and deport more than 11 million illegal aliens, and they also know that the economic consequences of doing such would be devastating even if they could, yet they all parroted the same hard-line talking point they always do.
On this issue, Newt Gingrich told the truth, and he told it to a group of people that didn’t particularly want to hear what he had to say. I very rarely have kind words for the former speaker, but on that day and on that question, he stood out as a leader. If any of the other candidates, particularly Mitt Romney, want to blunt the Gingrich surge, they should take a page out of his book and be bold, stand up and tell us what we don’t want to hear.
If they do, they just might find that a large microphone in front of their face has the ability to change people’s minds. I never believe in followers, but I do, occasionally, believe in leaders.
Matthew Gagnon, a Hampden native, is a Republican political strategist. He previously worked for Sen. Susan Collins and the National Republican Senatorial Committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his blog at www.pinetreepolitics.com.