All the Romney-alternatives — Bachmann, Cain, Christie, Giuliani, Palin, Perry, Rubio, Trump — came and went, or never came at all, except the most unlikely one, Newt Gingrich. With the implosion of the Cain campaign, and the realization that there are for now no more great conservative hopes on the horizon, Gingrich has pulled off one of the more unlikely comebacks in presidential-primary history, and finds himself ahead in the Republican polls.
Half the Republican electorate is relieved, or even delighted, about Gingrich. They are sure that almost any Republican could beat an imploding Barack Obama, who gets weirder with each rant about the rich. Why then not nominate a brilliant, imaginative, and exciting live-wire chatterbox like Gingrich?
They have bitter memories of sober, staid incumbent Jerry Ford, who nosed out an ascendant Ronald Reagan in the primary but then blew the general election against an inept leftist, Jimmy Carter. They have worse memories of another sober, staid plodder, Bob Dole, who was trounced by Bill Clinton, an incumbent who had not won 50 percent of the vote in 1992 and had been repudiated in the midterm elections of 1994. And they have memories that are worse yet of John McCain, who, in the fashion of Ford and Dole, was outdebated, outcharmed, and outhustled by Barack Obama.
No más! these conservatives scream. They insist that, despite his often non-Reaganesque record, Gingrich is about the closest thing they are going to get to Reagan for some time to come. They assert that they would rather risk losing than elect a centrist Republican who might nominate another Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court or add another entitlement like the unfunded Medicare prescription-drug benefit.
The other half agree that Obama is especially vulnerable this time around. But therefore the proper conclusion should be just the opposite: Why risk a nearly sure thing with the mercurial and baggage-laden Gingrich, who at any given moment can and will say almost anything?
Romney attracts independents and conservative Democrats in a way Gingrich does not. If Romney is the nominee, there surely won’t be an aging blonde showing up, accompanied by Gloria Allred, in October of next year detailing, in lurid fashion, a long-ago but heretofore-undisclosed affair. No unknown Romney video or book deal, college course, or consulting fee — more proof of Washington insider profiteering — will be revealed. And if Romney doesn’t have the visions of Gingrich, all the better: He won’t pontificate on the need for Oliver Twist–like orphanages, the fourth and fifth waves to come, or new paradigm shifts that sound more goofy than weighty.
There isn’t actually much difference between the two on the issues. Gingrich has flip-flopped as much as Romney — take your pick whether you think Romneycare is as bad as Newt’s embrace of an individual mandate, or whether Newt’s cap-and-trade alliance with Pelosi trumps Mitt’s former support for gun control and abortion.
Both are sixty-something establishment white guys. Romney appears younger and fitter, but not necessarily more energetic. Gingrich is quicker on his feet and sharper of tongue, but less circumspect and reliable in what he says. Mitt’s grudges and peeves are more apparent but of shorter duration; Newt’s are less perceptible, but deeper and more enduring. The Left hates both, though its dislike of the hypercapitalist Romney is more abstract, while its loathing of the conservative gladiator Gingrich is visceral and has a long history. That distinction either delights blood-spattered conservative brawlers or frightens worry-wart Republicans dreading daily New York Times hit pieces.