Great moments in history are achieved not necessarily by great people, but rather by courageous people who will defend great ideas. The American story is one of an enduring struggle by imperfect champions of perfect ideals: natural rights, individual liberty, independence, sovereignty, the rule of law and more. America, even in its third century, deserves nothing less.
As the Fox News/Wall Street Journal GOP presidential debate unfolded in South Carolina on Monday, it became exceedingly clear: Mitt Romney is masterful at defending Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich is masterful at defending conservatism.
That the former Massachusetts governor has become extraordinarily adept at defending himself as a political candidate should surprise no one. He is, after all, a well-financed and highly capable man who has dedicated the past several years of his life to running for president. Mr. Romney is like the Apple app store for candidates: Got a problem? There's an app for that.
What's your tax plan? There's an answer for that. Flip-flops? There's an answer for that. Romneycare? Bain Capital? There are answers for those. Job plan? There's a 59-point answer for that.
The problem for Mr. Romney came when he was knocked off the Mitt Romney script. When given opportunities to defend conservatism with questions about his tax returns and hunting, Mr. Romney stammered through painful answers and defended only himself, not conservatism. The hunting exchange was particularly illustrative. In 2008, you may recall, Mr. Romney tried to endear himself to Second Amendment advocates by boasting of his hunting exploits, which were mostly fictional. When pressed for his game of choice, he could only come up with "varmints."
Mitt 2.0 has solved the varmint problem by going elk hunting. Or was it moose? The governor should be reminded, however, that hunting is but a byproduct of the Second Amendment, not its purpose. Mr. Romney wasted an opportunity to remind Americans that our Founders, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, considered the right to bear arms an essential antidote to tyranny at the hands of government. Hunting is nice, but it was not their concern. But at least candidate Romney checked off the hunting box, even though his real game all along has been those varmint voters.
Compare this to Newt Gingrich's inspiring defense, not of himself, but of conservative values. The electrifying moment came when Fox News' Juan Williams attributed racist motives to the former speaker for labeling Barack Obama "the food-stamp president" and for his idea that young people should actually work. I suspect the Romney approach, based on his newfound passion for hunting, might have been to boast of his newfound black friends. Mr. Gingrich, however, wasn't interested in inoculating himself, which only serves to validate false charges. Instead, he exposed the false narrative of the media and unapologetically defended conservatism.
Mr. Gingrich reminded Mr. Williams that "the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history" as he disarmed Mr. Williams in a Reaganesque kind of way by adding, "Now, I know among the politically correct, you're not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable." What came next, however, caused the audience to erupt in a standing ovation and will go down in the annals of campaign history.
"So here's my point," Mr. Gingrich explained. "I believe every American of every background has been endowed by their creator with the right to pursue happiness. And if that makes liberals unhappy, I'm going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job and learn some day to own the job."
This was classic Newt Gingrich, thinking on his feet, defending not himself but conservative values. One wonders if Mr. Obama could withstand the gale force that is Newt Gingrich in a head-to-head debate. But it goes so much further than that. For a Republican, the formal presidential debates are merely warm-ups to handling the Washington press corps. Former President George W. Bush, you'll recall, bested former Vice President Al Gore in all three of their debates but failed miserably in the day-to-day debate of ideas, and his presidency suffered enormously.
If the conservative values of limited government, individual liberty and constitutional fidelity are to prevail, they must be defended unceasingly, passionately and unapologetically. We must demand this of our candidates and our leaders.
I don't suffer from the delusion that any political candidate is perfect. History has yet to produce such a mythical species, so we'd be fools to hold out for one now. Instead, I subscribe to the Milton Friedman idea that electing the "right" people is nice but a far more effective strategy is to make it politically profitable for even the wrong people to do the right things. Let's make it politically profitable for our candidates to vigorously defend conservatism by rewarding with our votes those who do.
Dr. Milton R. Wolf, a Washington Times columnist, is a radiologist and President Obama's cousin. He blogs at miltonwolf.com.