Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich take part in the Republican presidential candidate debate at the North Charleston Coliseum in Charleston, S.C., Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
What a satisfying, if self-indulgent, pleasure it has lately become to read the conservative press. As Newt Gingrich whacks Mitt Romney with brickbats furnished by Occupy Wall Street, the voices of the GOP establishment are rising in anger and consternation. In some quarters, a certain delicacy on the subject of Gingrich persists, for fear perhaps of offending a man who stands a slim chance of fulfilling his most grandiose dream, and also of inflaming the Tea Party base that thrills to his racially inflected rhetoric. So Newt’s vaunted erudition is commended before words like “unstable,” “risky,” and “zany” are introduced. In other quarters, the gloves have come off. This so-called outsider shared a couch with Nancy Pelosi; he’s “William Jefferson Gingrich,” a purveyor of pork and threat to free markets—he is no Ronald Reagan.
What’s striking, at this stage in the GOP primary, is that most serious discussions among conservatives appear to revolve around one question: Which of these men would be worse at the top of the party’s 2012 ticket? The erratic, philandering, thrice-married megalomaniac, a demonstrable hypocrite on nearly every score, who compared his own failure to get on the ballot in Virginia to Pearl Harbor and announced that he wants to colonize the moon; or the tin-eared, blow-dried candidate who seems unhinged when a hair falls out of place, a flip-flopper on hot-button issues from abortion to Obamacare, with his Swiss bank accounts, Cayman Islands tax shelters and fat-cat discount 13.9 percent tax rate—a candidate who in all of his particulars could have been drawn up as a cartoon target by the artists of Zuccotti Park?
The establishment answer is, of course, the former: Newt would be much worse. Haunted by memories of Gingrich’s role in the 1998 midterm debacle, GOP strategists too nervous to be named in news articles say they would regard a Newt nomination not only as a blown opportunity to dethrone Obama but as a looming “down ballot disaster” for the party. Former Senator Bob Dole went public with this concern, declaring, "If Gingrich is the nominee it will have an adverse impact on Republican candidates running for county, state and federal offices." Many rank and file Republicans either don’t agree or don’t care, with a January 26 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finding GOP voters nationwide preferring Gingrich to Romney by a nine point margin (37-28 percent, respectively). Florida voters seem finally to be harkening to the words of establishment scolds, with Romney surging ahead in the polls in the weekend before the vote. But as McCain strategist Steve Schmidt remarked on MSNBC, “[I]f Newt Gingrich is able to win the Florida primary, you will see a panic and a meltdown of the Republican establishment that is beyond my ability to articulate in the English language.”
Wherever they may stand on the Newt-Mitt divide, most conservative commentators seem to wish that there were some way out of their lesser-evil dilemma. They cast longing glances at Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie. Rather than strain to go positive for their chosen one, they go negative on the other one. As a Gingrich sympathizer put it in National Review Online, describing his Romney-supporting foes, “Their basic pitch is: Mitt Romney—he’s not as crazy, irresponsible or unethical as the other guy.”
It’s astonishing that a party with nearly limitless financial resources has such paltry human resources. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently wrote a column titled, “A Good Candidate is Hard to Find,” in which he did his best to come up with excuses for this sorry state of affairs: “The problem, perhaps, is that a successful presidential campaign calls on a trio of talents that only rarely overlap. Being a master politician in a mass democracy, in this sense, is a bit like being a brilliant filmmaker who’s somehow also a great economist, or a Nobel-winning scientist who writes best-selling novels on the side.” Which is, at best, a generous metaphor to use in reference to the two candidates leading the Republican pack today. It also evades the key issue, which is that the party has lurched so far to the right that a candidate like Romney, with some moderate positions on his record, must become a shape-shifter to survive the primary, leaving him badly compromised for the general election.
All of this naturally delights the Democrats, who are gleeful that Gingrich is relying on sources like ThinkProgress to saddle Romney with the mantle of the One Percent Candidate, and who salivate at the thought that it might actually work—Gingrich, whose embarrassing open-book past renders opposition research nearly unnecessary, and whose base of support lies far to the right of the mainstream, might actually be the GOP nominee.
Robert Reich warns that they should be careful what they hope for. “No responsible Democrat should be pleased at the prospect that Gingrich could get the GOP Nomination. The future of America is too important to accept even a small risk of a Gingrich presidency,” which he puts at 10 percent, versus 49 percent for Romney.
Well, maybe. It’s true, President Gingrich is a scary thought. Also disturbing is the prospect of a general election campaign filled with race-baiting that lingers long after Obama sends Newt scurrying back to his job as K Street’s most handsomely compensated historian. At a time when one in seven Americans, and one in four children, depend on food stamps to stave off hunger—and when funding for the program is being slashed—an election season flavored with Newt’s bashing of the “food stamp president” is not something to savor, whatever the outcome might be.
For now, though, it’s hard not to derive some enjoyment from the Newt vs. Mitt slugfest, if only as a temporary distraction from the grim reality that Washington is still owned and operated by and for the 1 Percent.