Thursday, March 15, 2012

Newt the irrelevant

It’s been a talking point for political analysts who may be dabbling in chess or horse racing between talk-show appearances: the fortunes of former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum, and the glide path to victory for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, depend on whether or not former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the presumptive conservative prefrontal cortex, will exit the race for the Republican nomination.

The thinking goes that Gingrich has contented himself with the idea of being the burr under Romney’s Corinthian-leather saddle ”all the way to Tampa,” where Gingrich will attempt to bludgeon Romney by degrees at the convention, doing everything he can to deny Romney the nomination, and possibly to secure a role in the ascendancy of Santorum to nominee. (And just maybe find himself a place on what would be the most conservative GOP ticket in decades.)

Some analysts surmise that Gingrich’s presidential bid could go on if he continued to get — clear! — financial support from Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire Las Vegas casino baron whose millions of dollars in defibrillator assistance to the Gingrich SuperPAC have kept his campaign clinically alive.

But these various calculations have endowed the sputtering Gingrich bid with more leverage than it deserves. As it turns out, the conservative voters of every primary since Georgia, and most of those since South Carolina, have already sent their own message, convincingly. Machinations aside, his campaign is increasingly irrelevant to the deeper, future fortunes of the Republican Party.

◊ ◊ ◊

Look at the numbers, where Gingrich has finished in the primaries. Yes, he won the Georgia primary in a walk on March 3, as pretty much expected (it's his home state). And that was a nice follow-up on his overwhelming win in South Carolina, in January. Both victories seemed to be some vindication of his “Southern strategy.” But what’s happened before and since paints the sharper picture of the Newt 2012 campaign.

He placed third in Tennessee, third in Ohio, third in Kansas and (on Tuesday) third in Alabama. He finished fourth in North Dakota, fourth again in Maine and Idaho, and in Wyoming and Alaska, and in Hawaii.

Even one of his primary wins, his home state of Georgia, divides delegates proportionately, rather than winner-take-all. In terms of the delegate count, he had to split that triumph with someone else — Mitt Romney, Gingrich’s blood nemesis.

With the results of about a dozen primaries as proof, what we’ve seen, first marginally then moderately, is a political variation of what happens in nature when some irresistible force runs up against an immovable object.

The outcome of that dozen primaries, from January to last Tuesday, show that conservatives have factored into their votes the fact that Gingrich intends on remaining in the race, regardless of any real viability. Put simply, more and more often they’re voting around Newt Gingrich. The gravitational pull on his campaign toward third-or-worse finishes all year proves that. Conservative reception to his immobility, his dogged intent to stay in “all the way to Tampa,” is implicit in the results of his campaign so far.

◊ ◊ ◊

What happened on Tuesday in Alabama and Mississippi — ostensibly his good ol’ boy home turf — is the clearest expression of how the irresistible force of conservatives already deployed around the idea of Anybody But Mitt has pushed back hard on the entreaties of the former Speaker of the House, their energies steadily coalescing around another, parallel idea: Anybody But Newt.

If the math is prohibitive for Santorum, and it is, it’s terminal for Gingrich. For Newt to prevail, the phrase “run the table” scarcely applies. Gingrich would have to own the table from here on in. But winning isn’t Gingrich’s objective; he’s basically said as much. And this is the most dispiriting thing about the Gingrich campaign right now. It’s intrinsically the campaign of a spoiler candidate, one whose sole obstructionist reason for being is small and pinched and angry and punitive. All the character traits the Republican Party is desperate to shed this year, in pursuit of the White House.

There’s a reason the sunny, upbeat miens of Romney and Santorum are finding favor with Republican voters this primary season, in poll after poll, vote after vote. Ironically, it’s less about politics and more about perception. However goofy or provocative they may be, they appear to represent the future. Newt Gingrich surely, necessarily embodies the past.

◊ ◊ ◊

His “Southern strategy” could find a second wind. There’s a primary and a caucus in Louisiana, and other primaries in North Carolina, West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky and Texas in May. But before and after that, the scene generally shifts to the north and the west, where Romney and Santorum are thought to have the same regional advantages as Gingrich thought he had in the south.

Analysts and columnists will pull their chins about Gingrich’s prospects from now into the summer. But the assumption that Newt will soldier on, right as it’ll probably be in the short term, confronts another, more charitable possibility:

Newt Gingrich will come to realize that his role in the 2012 campaign is increasingly irrelevant; that any hope of his being a “kingmaker” in Tampa would be politically and historically hollow if he tries to attain through manipulation at the convention what he couldn’t attain through suasion and argument on the campaign trail; that eventually, bitter personal battles convey to your opponents a power they wouldn’t ordinarily have: the power to make you do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do.

If it was pride that animated his earlier battles with Romney and the others, if it was pride that made him persist despite last year’s organizational train wreck, then nothing less than pride — in himself, what’s left of his conservative reputation and in his grasp of campaign reality and the laws of political probability — will eventually usher him out of a race whose outcome he can scarcely influence, and cannot control.

The winter months of 2012 have been less than kind to the Newt 2012 campaign, and this spring’s not really gonna be any better. Consider, if you will, a cautious wager: that even a strategic Machiavellian political insider ideologue like Newt Gingrich, a minder of various political balance sheets, will soon look at the math of his current campaign and the calculus that will decide his wider legacy and his reputation.

And pride will go down well before this fall.

Image credits: Gingrich: Reuters/Daron Dean. Adelson: Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images. GOP delegate count and poll average tracker chart: Real Clear Politics. Newt 2012 logo:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...