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.”