What a satisfying, if self-indulgent, pleasure it has become to read the conservative press. As Newt Gingrich whacked Mitt Romney with brickbats furnished by Occupy Wall Street in the lead-up to the Florida primary, the voices of the Republican establishment rose in anger and consternation, rattled by the prospect that their anointed candidate might have to endure a protracted intraparty fight that would lay bare his copious vulnerabilities. Discussions of the party’s prospects among conservative strategists generally boiled down to one question: Which of these men would be worse at the top of the GOP’s 2012 ticket? The erratic, ethically challenged, philandering, thrice-married megalomaniac who compared his failure to get on the Virginia ballot 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 Cayman Islands tax shelters and fat-cat discount 13.9 percent tax rate—a candidate who in all his particulars could have been drawn as a cartoon target by the artists of Zuccotti Park?
The establishment conclusion was, 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 said they would regard a Newt nomination 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.” Former McCain strategist Steve Schmidt remarked that a Gingrich win in Florida would trigger “a panic and a meltdown of the Republican establishment that is beyond my ability to articulate in the English language.”
It was to avert such a meltdown, rather than out of any true passion for Mitt, that the pro-Romney Super PACs were unleashed in Florida, swamping Gingrich with negative ads. As a Gingrich sympathizer complained in National Review Online, “Their basic pitch is: ‘Mitt Romney—he’s not as crazy, irresponsible, or unethical as the other guy.’”
Wherever they’ve stood on the Newt-Mitt divide, most conservative commentators seemed to wish for a way out of their lesser-evil dilemma. Long after they should have given up hope, they were casting longing glances at Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie. It is astonishing that a party with nearly limitless financial resources has such paltry human resources. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat 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. 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.
This all naturally delights the Democrats, who are gleeful that Gingrich has relied on liberal sources like ThinkProgress to saddle Romney with the mantle of the One Percent Candidate, and who salivated at the thought that Gingrich could be the GOP nominee. On his blog, Robert Reich warned 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.”
Well, maybe. It’s true, “President Gingrich” is a scary thought. And it’s hard to relish the prospect of a general election campaign filled with racebaiting lines like “food stamp president” that linger long after President Obama sends Newt scurrying back to his job as K Street’s most handsomely compensated historian.
With Romney’s decisive Florida win, it appears we will be spared that particular experience. Conservatives are busy declaring that the hard-fought primary has only made their candidate stronger, but polls detect a distinct sense of frustration among GOP voters that their party couldn’t come up with anyone better. Meanwhile, though some partisan Dems might lament Newt’s demise, Romney is the gift that keeps on giving, both to the Obama campaign and the Occupy movement—using the occasion of his victory lap in Florida to evince his lack of concern for the “very poor,” further cementing his status as an icon of the clueless, heartless rich.