Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Can Newt win?

At The Daily Beast yesterday, Paul Begala wrote that "the Gingrich surge is just the latest Republican tulip craze... -- with Newt simply serving as the latest vessel for the ABR movement: Anybody But Romney."

Richard made that point last week, and it's more or less the conventional wisdom now. Ultimately, that wisdom goes, Romney will win, but his conservative rivals need to exhaust themselves first, one by one rising and falling.

And yet.

The question must be asked: Could Newt actually win?

At The Atlantic the other day, Molly Ball examined Newt's appeal: He is "an overwhelmingly charming figure," he has "a long list of crowd-pleasing accomplishments," and, in terms of the GOP presidential field, he "manages to embody the response to all the the flawed contenders who preceded him."

Which is to say, if I may broaden Ball's point, he isn't just the anti-Romney, he's also the anti-Bachmann (experienced and seemingly not crazy), the anti-Perry (articulate), and the anti-Cain (knowledgeable and with baggage already widely exposed).

Yes, conservatives have been going from one anti-Romney (or, more positively, right-wing standard-bearer) to another, but they're not doing this because they can't make their minds up but because each option has proven, in turn, to be inadequate. They want someone to get behind for the remainder of the campaign. If Perry had been up to it, it would have been Perry. But he wasn't and so it hasn't been. Same with Bachmann and Cain.

And so... Newt. Why not?

Like me (and, no doubt, many others). New York's Jon Chait can hardly believe Newt's sudden rise -- "The Newtening," he amusingly calls it. But, more and more, it seems to make sense. As he wrote last week:

The pattern of anti-Romneys rising and falling has naturally made the press corps suspicious of the latest version. But here's the thing. Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain didn't rise and fall because of some natural tidal forces. They fell out of favor because they did not know how to handle a national campaign. (Actually, Bachmann was just sort of swamped by the Perry wave.) Gingrich has tons of liabilities — non-orthodox positions, erratic behavior, little money or organization — but he does have experience in the national spotlight. It's not completely inevitable that he will implode.

And there's not much time left. The Iowa caucuses are less than two months away, with the holiday season in between, when public attention is low. Of course, Newt is "notoriously erratic," as Chait also wrote, but in terms of the horse race he's got a lot going for him right now: Romney stuck with what appears to be a low ceiling of support, Cain falling, Perry failing to get going again, no other viable conservative rival.

Meanwhile, whatever his plentiful baggage, he's adopted the tactic of attacking the media, an appeal right to the core of conservative Republican primary voters. Writes Chait, "Gingrich's incessant and often unprovoked media-bashing is one of the keys to his success. It converts every question about him into a tribal contest between conservatives and the hated Other." He's good at that, just as he's good at being in the national spotlight, where his mix of articulateness, quasi-intellectualism, and partisan extremism are what many Republicans are looking for to take down Obama.

Chait is right: Newt isn't exactly pure (his record includes support for cap and trade and various other currently heterodox positions in the GOP), but unlike Romney, that "perfectly lubricated weathervane," he isn't viewed with insurmountable suspicion by conservatives. He's flipped and flopped, but he isn't seen as an untrustworthy opportunist who will say anything to get elected but rather as a dedicated partisan. Sure, a lot of this has to do with the fact that his record hasn't been exposed the way Romney's has, given that he hasn't held elected office in some time and wasn't until just recently seen as a credible candidate, and it's possible that his current popularity won't hold up to scrutiny. But, again, there isn't much time left before it all gets going. Time is on his side.

I can't quite believe I'm writing this. Newt? Gingrich? Really?

Here's what I wrote earlier this year, just before he announced:

I can't see Gingrich pulling this off, but you never know, not with such a lackluster field. He may just be enough of everything, enough of the various constituencies of the GOP, to sneak through, and he certainly has the big name and media appeal to differentiate himself from the likes of those three governors. Conservatives like him more than Romney, who will never be able to escape his health-care reform in Massachusetts, not to mention his much-deserved reputation as a shamelessly opportunistic flip-flopper...
So, yes, we'll see, but I think Gingrich just has too much baggage to prevail. Under the sort of media scrutiny he'll face if he manages to rise to contender status and to carry that into the upcoming primary season (not just of his personal life but of his inconsistent policy positions over the years and poor record as speaker way back in the '90s, when Clinton trounced him), he may collapse, or rather his popularity may, and that, in that event, would be that. If he's serious about running, he'll no doubt be a stronger candidate than Giuliani and Fred Thompson, two high-profile Republican celebrities, were in 2008, but I suspect similar failure awaits him down the road.

Well, the 2012 Republican presidential field has been even more lackluster than expected and it may just be that Newt's in the right place at the right time.

Let's say he wins Iowa and keeps it close (or at least exceeds expectations) in New Hampshire. Then what? South Carolina? Sure, he can win there. And then... who knows? He could pick up support from, as well as the endorsements of, his conservative rivals (Cain, Perry, Bachmann, Santorum) and end up in holding the conservative flag against Romney (with Paul perhaps still in as well). The establishment backs Romney, it seems, but that may not matter. Besides, if Gingrich continues to look strong, and if he actually wins, say, in Iowa, the establishment (nowadays, Karl Rove et al.) may have no choice but to anoint him their choice even against their better judgement (as Romney would be the much stronger challenger to Obama).

Crazy? Sure. Who saw this coming?

But crazy is the norm in today's GOP -- and in that sense all of this makes perfect sense.

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  • Why are people obsessed with all these nutty characters in the GOP campaign, yet ignore the only person who could actually make a difference to the USA, aka Ron Paul. Why do the press pay him little to no coverage?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:37 PM  

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