Sunday, January 22, 2012

Everlast: Newt Gingrich resets the Republican race

Fifteen years to the day after he was reprimanded by the House of Representatives, fined $300,000 for ethics violations and ushered from his post as House Speaker, Newton Leroy Gingrich defied the odds and the naysayers and won the South Carolina Primary, restarting the Republican presidential campaign.

Two years to the day after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Citizens United vs. FEC decision existentially equalizing corporations and human beings for purposes of political donations, Newt Gingrich celebrated a victory that Citizens United helped make possible.

Today, everything in an already ridiculous campaign completely changed. The man whose presidential bid many in the punditburo and the wider online commentariat (me included) had given up for dead or comic relief has made political history, crushing his blood rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is in deep trouble tonight.

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You can’t overstate the importance of what’s gone down. With Newt’s convincing 12-point victory over Romney in the state that Romney himself championed as the defining battleground for the nomination, Gingrich has dragged the Republican Party further to the right and, by wresting the prized asset of electability from Romney’s hands, forced Romney to make a pivot in that rightward direction, right when Romney was trying to make general election sounds.

Newt’s win represents the first time that no one clear favorite had developed after the South Carolina Primary, the “first-in-the-South” event whose outcome has reliably determined the eventual winner of the nomination. With former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum ekeing out a win in the Iowa caucuses, Romney winning New Hampshire (as expected) and Newt’s win tonight, three contenders have won three different primary-season contests.

But it all makes perfect sense: an indecision of identity marks the Republican brand now, and has been a fact of political life since the Tea Party movement subdivided the GOP’s identity in 2010. How could the results of the first three contests in the GOP primary calendar reflect anything but the same confusion?

You could be charitable about all this and look at the existential disarray of the GOP campaign as some kind of annealing, crucible event — the bitter, brutal hammering out of a new conservative dynamic, the forging of a New Republican Party. But no. Hell naw. This is confusion and nothing but. A race that's had more resets than a shot clock in the NBA just another one.

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What a difference a month makes. After hitting the glide path in late November and early December, Gingrich dropped in the polls. A national Gallup poll released in December found his support among Republican voters cratering, with just 26 percent, down from 37 percent on Dec. 8.

Everybody jumped Newt. On ABC News, conservative voicebox George F. Will said that “Gingrich’s is an amazingly efficient candidacy, in that it embodies almost everything disagreeable about modern Washington. He’s the classic rental politician.”

On Dec. 2 Will said Newt’s temperament was “intellectual hubris distilled” and called him “the least conservative candidate,” one who “embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive.”

On Dec. 15, the conservative National Review checked Gingrich for “his impulsiveness, his grandiosity, his weakness for half-baked (and not especially conservative) ideas” as House Speaker – traits that the conservative bible said hadn’t gone anywhere.

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But in spite of it all, the most strategically pugnacious, bluntly Machiavellian politician in at least a generation fought off the ridicule that accompanied finishing in fourth place in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, well out of the money ... until he found his voice.

On two nights, in two separate debates, with two brusque exchanges with the media that galvanized the people of South Carolina, Newt Gingrich reinvented himself, again by doubling down on what he’s always been: prickly, mercurial, professorial, uncompromising. Based on the returns from South Carolina, he’s just what the electorate was looking for.

In South Carolina, anyway. You see, regardless of Gingrich’s sudden ascension in the Palmetto State, he still gets no love in certain quarters in the South that is, for now, his salvation.

Henry Barbour, a top Republican party fundraiser from Mississippi, was plain-spoken. "He is a ticking time bomb," Barbour told Jon Ward of The Huffington Post.

"He won't last. He's great for a cable news show, but when does he blow up?" said Barbour, who jumped from Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s doomed campaign to Romney’s organization after Perry revisited his earlier Frank Reappraisal and quit the race on Thursday.

"Romney has the plan, infrastructure and resources to win a quick or protracted campaign,” Barbour said. “Gingrich and Santorum will have a very hard time managing this as the pace quickens beyond their ability to execute in all the places they need to campaign.

On Dec. 15, The National Review said it plainer-spoken than that. “At the moment we think it important to urge Republicans to have the good sense to reject a hasty marriage to Gingrich, which would risk dissolving in acrimony.”

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All that was before South Carolina. Now, it’s been reported that the Republican hierarchy is frantic in a hair-on-fire kind of way to stop Gingrich from gaining any more ground, in Florida.

But the wily Newt may have already outflanked those who hope to marginalize him. The day after his win in South Carolina, Newt went on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and laid out something that’s been missing from the talking points of most of the campaigns crashing and burning around him.

In language lofty and procedural, partisan and inclusive, Newt Gingrich laid out what sounded like something akin to a vision for the country he presumes to lead as president. But there’s an unease about Gingrich among conservatives, a feeling aroused well before his recent success in South Carolina. In stunning fashion, Gingrich has reset the Republican race for the nomination. It's yet to be seen whether he can reset himself.

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Last month, Peggy Noonan, an opinion writer for The Wall Street Journal and one with a feel for the distilling passage, captured the essence of these fears of the Republican base:

“Those who know him fear—or hope—that he will be true to form in one respect: He will continue to lose to his No. 1 longtime foe, Newt Gingrich. He is a human hand grenade who walks around with his hand on the pin, saying, ‘Watch this!’

“What they fear is that he will show just enough discipline over the next few months, just enough focus, to win the nomination. And then, in the fall of 2012, once party leaders have come around and the GOP is fully behind him, he will begin baying at the moon.”

Another debate looms on Monday, and Newt will lace up the gloves and answer the bell again, no doubt as feisty and reflexively combative as ever. The question remains how Gingrich will use his newfound momentum out of South Carolina, as his campaign tunnels into the state of Florida. Are vilification of the media, a blizzard of provocative but implausible ideas and tireless jabbering about Saul Alinsky enough to get him through a busy primary calendar, much less the general election?

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A digital video recorder is a valuable thing. With a DVR you can record programs and play them back later, of course, and you can slow things down — watch the events within events unfolding incrementally. Frame by frame, you can see right where the wide receiver lost sight of the football coming toward him; you can trace the moment when the jump shot leaves the point guard’s hands.

You can pinpoint exactly when the train wreck began, per the split second it was avoided.

The ascendant Newt Gingrich will be at the University of South Florida in Tampa on Monday, in the 18th candidates’ debate, yet another of the DVR recording sessions that comprise the Republican campaign for the party's nomination.

Watch this.

Image credits: Gingrich images: via The Huffington Post. Hand grenade: public domain.

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