You must admit some relish in watching conservative elites teeter around like defective bumper cars trying to figure out how it possibly came to be that their party is seriously considering elevating Newton Leroy Gingrich to a national presidential candidacy. It’s worth taking a little tour of the disbelief and panic setting in:
Jay Cost of the Weekly Standard provides the main case:
The problem with Gingrich, of course, is that he comes with a cargo ship full of baggage – ideological, financial, and personal. Gingrich has made a career since leaving the House as a well-connected insider; he has bona fide ethical scandals on his resume. His personal life is a total mess, and he has turned off the broad middle of the country for the last 15 years.
The “of course” is priceless.
David Frum, though not really in the good graces of the conservative elite these days, certainly shares their disdain for Newt:
Gingrich remains one of the very most disliked figures in national politics…. Over a political career of nearly 40 years, Gingrich has convinced almost everybody who has ever worked closely with him that he cannot and should not be trusted with executive power. […]
He is a candidate of talk-show hosts and local activists—and of course of Rick Perry and Sarah Palin—but not of those who know him best and have worked with him most closely. Gingrich may raise more money after his South Carolina win. But prediction: Romney will raise even more, among the great national network of Republicans who recognize that to nominate Gingrich is to commit party suicide.
Ross Douthat strikes against the core of the Gingrich pseudo-appeal: his supposed mastery of all those “big ideas”:
I have, for my sins, watched Gingrich make his pitch across what feels like seventeen thousand Republican primary debates, and I am at a loss to identify the “big ideas” and “big solutions” that he is supposedly campaigning on. […] Instead, so far as I can tell, his “idea-oriented” campaign consists almost entirely of promising to hold Lincoln-Douglas-style debates with President Obama, grandstanding about media bias and moderator stupidity, defending his history of ideological flexibility much more smoothly than Mitt Romney, and then occasionally throwing out a wonky-sounding notion (like, say, outsourcing E-Verify to American Express) that’s more glib than genuinely significant.
So how did this come to pass?
I say, Republican Establishment, quit your whining. You might not have pulled the final switch to bring the Gingrich monster to life, but you outfitted the laboratory and set all the wiring. Jon Chait explains perfectly:
The Republican Establishment, having spent three years stoking its voters into a fit of wild rage against President Obama, now finds itself in a panic over the possibility that those voters might be wild and enraged enough to go ahead and select Newt Gingrich as their nominee. There really is a lot of humor in the situation. The proposition Gingrich is offering GOP voters is just the natural extension of what they have come to believe. Obama is an ultra-radical, as well as a lightweight, who can’t speak without a TelePrompTer, so simply forcing him into a series of lengthy debates will expose his incompetence and extremism.
Exactly right. Republican party, you birthed Newtenstein 2012. Anyone who ever said the word “death panels”; anyone who ever tried to convince themselves that Sarah Palin was a worthy national political figure; anyone who ever wondered or gave cover to those who wondered where the President was born, or if he hates white people, or if he was a socialist, a Marxist, a radical anti-American, a danger, an illegitimate usurper. All the thought leaders who praised “the passion and intensity” of the base, and pandered to the low denominators of human decency in order to drum up votes. Well done, the Republican electorate believed everything you said.
Here is Newt, your frontrunner, feeding off and reflecting back your fears and resentments like Freddy Kruger:
What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together his actions? That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior. This is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president.
Foreign, alien, illegitimate, duplicitous, at once incompetent and mastermind of a grand national con. It’s all in there. Newt is the full-spectrum Republican.
Those establishment elites, the politicians and op-ed and magazine writers, are now waking up to the nightmare they’ve helped create. They are now engaged in a rather pathetic display of pining for what might have been, including a surprising amount of anger and contempt directed at those potential candidates who decided not to run this year.
Brett Stephens, in an otherwise very amusing column in the WSJ:
Finally, there are the men not in the field: Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Haley Barbour. This was the GOP A-Team, the guys who should have showed up to the first debate but didn’t because running for president is hard and the spouses were reluctant. Nothing commends them for it. If this election is as important as they all say it is, they had a duty to step up.
[T]he decisions by various capable Republicans to forgo a presidential run this year have been a collective disgrace; …Republican primary voters deserve a better choice than the one being presented to them.
And as of this week, Bill Kristol is still trying to get Mitch Daniels to run.
Why did these bright credible Republican leaders all take a pass? Are they really disgraceful cowards who abdicated their duty to lead?
I don’t think so. I think the reason is related to the first point. It’s because none of these reasonable people wanted to expose themselves to this Republican primary electorate. You cannot spend three years stoking popular demand for a Newtenstein, then wonder how someone like Mitch Daniels comes to think that maybe this isn’t his year.
It’s a calculation made not out of fear but pragmatism. We’ve known for three years that this is not the age of Republican Reasonableness. If you were one of these talented politicians contemplating a run, would you want to compete to out-bombast and out-demogogue Newt Gingrich? Would you want to try and win South Carolina by stoking racial stereotypes about food stamps and calling the media dispicable? Would you want to debate tax policy with Herman Cain? Pander to Ron Paul’s insane idea about reviving the gold standard? Insinuate that the president is illegitimate and wants to undermine American values?
No, you probably wouldn’t. That’s why, if you ran, you’d likely have no clearer path to the nomination than Romney does, or Jon Huntsman for that matter. And why at some point in your principled rock star campaign you’d probably be labeled a heretic and a moderate for this or that mistaken bout of sanity.
You would try to play the Obama-hater, as Romney does, but your forced attempts at vitriol will be deeply unconvincing, as Romney’s is. You’ll never match Newt’s natural ease with bilious sneering contempt, or his brilliance at combining maximum condescension with maximum populist emotionalism. You’d have placed in Iowa. You’d have lost South Carolina by 12 points too. If you made it this far, you’d now be tied in Florida, wondering how it came to be that Newt Gingrich was on the verge of destroying your party. Party leaders would be contemplating new saviors.
I believe Mitt Romney will still be the nominee. But this spell of trouble has exposed how very weak he is as a general election candidate. It is not a good sign of party enthusiasm if after only three primary contests, the main feeling is one of misplaced regret and nostalgia for the candidates who didn’t run. It’s also exposed the dark depths of Republican dysfunction. I fear a Romney defeat in November will convince the party base not that it needs more moderation, more erudition, more rationality, but that it needs a stronger, better, faster, Newtenstein to set things pure and right. Sadly, we might be a few more cycles away from a credible conservative opposition.