Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Newt’s figment VII:
'The tallest building in Wichita' gains stature

You know you’re the frontrunner in the 2012 Republican presidential campaign when David Letterman broadcasts a computer animation of you having sex with a vending machine.

The CBS late-night king pulled that lil’ electronic stunt last Thursday night, just as the perceived fortunes of Newt Gingrich were in fact beginning to gel into something real in the world of politics. The bottom rail’s on the top right now.

After more than six months of being adrift and closing in on the rocks, the Newt Gingrich 2012 presidential campaign has apparently corrected course.

For weeks now, Newt has parlayed his wantonly corrosive style of politics and a weak Republican field of dreamers into a poll position that left him on the edge of acceptability. Despite strong performances in several debates, he could never break through.

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There’s been a lot for Republican likely voters to look into. They’ve tried out the newer, sleeker, louder machinery — a few weeks behind the wheel of the 2012 Bachmann; about the same amount of time test-driving the new Perry; then a long, wild jaunt in that improbable concept vehicle, the Mark IX IX IX model Cain — but they just couldn’t see themselves taking this year’s Newt out for a spin.

What the hell was different?, they thought. It looked about the same as the old model. It sure as hell sounded the same. And its habit of suddenly accelerating for no reason, veering down uninhabitable culs-de-sac, had never been corrected at the factory. Nor had the problem with noisy engine run-on, which could happen months or years after it was parked in the garage.

But those voters have discovered that all the other vehicles had faulty batteries, or no batteries at all. This year’s Newt has a lot in common with its previous models. Never exactly sleek, its design stayed conservative, and the thing maintained enough horsepower to go the distance. And it always started right up, even in the discontented winters. It was reliable, more or less. For more and more of those early voters, making their feelings known in several new opinion polls this year, that may be enough.

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Several of the latest of those surveys, released in a flurry Tuesday and today, point to a resurgent consideration of Gingrich for the nomination. In a Gallup daily tracking poll, Gingrich outpaced former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, his nearest challenger, by 15 percentage points, 37 percent to 22 percent.

In the new ABC News Poll of likely GOP voters, Gingrich topped Romney by 15 points, 33 to 18. And in the Winthrop Poll, Gingrich laps Romney by 22 percentage points, 38 percent to 16 percent. Three polls commissioned by CNN and Opinion Research Corporation, conducted in the battleground states of Iowa, Florida and South Carolina, had Gingrich amassing leads of between 13 and 23 percentage points.

Gingrich’s anointing as frontrunner has been wide, if not entirely universal. Bill O’Reilly congratulated him on Fox News. Mainstream media has shifted its focus to the man from Georgia. At Intrade, the predictive wagering market Web site, bets on Gingrich winning the nomination have risen sharply in recent days. And Letterman offered his backhanded computer-cartoon tribute to Newt’s lead in the polls.

On Tuesday, no doubt in the strength of some of these surveys, Steve Schmidt, former McCain campaign strategist and political analyst, said Gingrich now “exists in an alternate reality.”

We’ll see how long that lasts.

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In assessing Gingrich’s future political fortunes, there’s a sense that past always threatens prologue. On Nov. 22, just as Gingrich hit the glide path, Edward-Isaac Dovere of Politico wrote a compelling piece that sampled the opinions of conservative thought leaders, analysts and policy brains for a candid assessment of Gingrich’s big-idea intellect. Sometimes, candor ain’t pretty.

“Gingrich is interested in ideas and at his best has been highly skilled marketer of them — as when he distilled decades of conservative thought into the “Contract with America” in 1994,” Dovere writes. “But as he surges in the 2012 polls on the strength of professorial debate performances, some skeptics on the academic and think tank right say that the former speaker’s showy intellectualism and endless reservoir of obscure historical trivia are not the same as being an original or rigorous thinker."

David Boaz of the conservative Cato Institute was not charitable: “He strikes me as a guy who thinks of lots of ideas and never runs them through a sanity test before spilling them on a stage,” Boaz told Politico.

Roderick Hills Jr., a law professor at New York University and member of the conservative Federalist Society, would agree. “I don’t think of him that way, and I don’t know of any professor who thinks of him that way,” he told Politico.

Some say not so fast. Lee Edwards of The Heritage Foundation, said Newt’s bona fides are very much in order. “He may not be as deep a thinker as Russell Kirk or an F.A. Hayek or Richard Weaver, but certainly I’d say he’s as intelligent and as thoughtful as any politician who comes along,” Edwards told Dovere. “I haven’t read one of his more recent books, but I think he pays proper attention to and gives credit to all the right people in the conservative movement.”

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Gingrich is a tireless champion of himself, a man whose unsaid but implicit self-advertisement is as a conservative intellectual Da Vinci, a right-wing, tough-love polymath for our time and all time. Dovere reports that Gingrich “is author or co-author of 21 books that include fanciful policy explorations, alternate-history novels, a self-help book and an environmental treatise he co-authored with the former director of the Atlanta Zoo.”

(We’re all waiting breathlessly for his dissertation on quantum mechanics.)

But with a breadth of thoughts like that, with the great thinker venturing a concept here and a treatise there with an absence of follow-through in the academy and the wider culture, Gingrich mostly generates a picture of him as someone who’s intellectually 1,000 miles wide and three inches deep.

This has already led to Gingrich overreaching on the campaign trail. He may have already made a misstep borne of hubris: pivoting aggressively toward the general election, focusing on President Obama rather than the six other candidates he faces in the upcoming primaries.

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That willingness to go five bridges too far was obvious on Tuesday night, in an interview with Lawrence Kudlow on CNBC, when he laid into the president: “He represents a hard-left radicalism, he is opposed to free enterprise, he is opposed to capitalism, he is opposed to virtually everything that made America great.”

It’s towering claptrap like that — rendered in Newt’s sermon-on-the-mount rhetorical style — that will appeal to many primary voters, but which will likely fall on the deaf ears of moderates and independents, and which will fail him utterly in the general election. If he gets that far.

Consider his latest whizbangs: In what can only be called a measuring of the drapes in the Oval Office, Gingrich told the Republican Jewish Coalition today that if elected, he would tap John Bolton — the combative, abrasive neocon who served as U.N. ambassador, one who was reliably at odds with the organization he was a part of — to be his secretary of state.

Then, floating another willfully provocative, high-flown, half-baked design, Gingrich also said he would order the U.S. Embassy in Israel to be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the city that Palestinians hope to secure as the capital of a future state.

“I think he has had a tendency to just have idle thoughts occur to him as he’s reading the newspaper and then announce them without even running it by a colleague,” David Boaz told Politico.

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For Republicans nursing dashed hopes after seeing frontrunner after frontrunner dissipate in the white-hot glare of a presidential campaign, Newt Gingrich has been the best of the breed by virtue of his own longevity. Like the Chevy you grew up with or the Ford that’s good for a quarter-million miles if you change the oil, Newt Gingrich is or appears to be the GOP’s last best hope at going the distance to the nomination with a reasonably credible candidate.

But Gingrich has gone off the rails, rhetorically and financially and ethically, more than twice. For all his campaign’s impressive superiority in the latest polling, the main reason Gingrich has risen so far relative to the rest of the field is: the rest of the field.

Leave it to Fred Siegel, a scholar at the conservative Manhattan Institute, to deliver the unkindest cut of all, via Politico: “He is the tallest building in Wichita.”

For months now, Gingrich has languished in third place or worse; attempts to spin his current ascendancy as proof of a new-and-improved, election-ready Newt Gingrich confront the voters’ doubts that isolated him to also-ran until very recently, when all other electable options were exhausted. Those doubts are still shared by many in the party.

For many Republican voters, the new Newt has earned a road test from now until March. Iowa and New Hampshire are dead ahead. But if past is prologue — and it often is — his mileage will vary. Wildly.

Image credits: Newt face: Fox News. Newt at the vending machine: © 2011 CBS/Worldwide Pants. Gingrich wagering snapshot: Politico logo: © 2011 Politico.

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