I’m not saying that the presidential debates will end with Gingrich offering to pen a new foreword to Dreams from My Father, only that anyone banking on Newt to clobber Obama is flying on blind faith.
By the way, “Knut” is not the name just of a German polar bear, but also of the Danish and English king better known to us as “Canute” — the fellow who, at what is now Westminster, took his throne to the shore and commanded the incoming tide not to wet his feet. It declined to obey, as Canute knew it would: He staged the performance in order to teach his courtiers a lesson in the limits of kingly power. No such intimations of human limitation afflict the new Knut. Few politicians are more incisive at identifying the absurdities of America’s bloated, sclerotic leviathan — as he pointed out recently, the headquarters of the U.S. military’s Africa Command is in Stuttgart, which even Herman Cain might recognize as barely qualifying as the general ballpark. But no other candidate on the right shares the boundless confidence that Leviathan will work just swell if only Knut the Great is there to command it. For Republicans, this is not someone who is both “very conservative” and “very moderate,” but someone who is potentially the worst of all worlds: a man who embraces big-government solutions to health care, climate change, and all the rest, but who gets damned as a mean-spirited vindictive right-wing hater — the Gingrich who stole Christmas, to revive Newsweek’s 1994 cover story.
And, as predictably unpredictable as Gingrich is, there remains the drearier routine of his post-Speaker career. When Churchill was forced from the Admiralty in 1915, he went on to serve with the Sixth Battalion, the Royal Scots Fusiliers on the Western Front. By contrast, when he was forced from the speakership, Newt stayed in Washington working his Rolodex. These are different times, but even so the Freddie Mac business is not a small thing. Perhaps the single most repellent feature of the political class that has served America so disastrously in recent decades is its shameless venality in parlaying “public service” into a guarantee of an eternal snout at the trough. Newt writes bestselling books about government, produces DVDs about government, sets up websites about government, but he is as foreign to genuine private-sector wealth creation as any life politician. Indeed, his endurance in Washington represents one of the worst aspects of contemporary “public service” — that a life in politics no longer depends on anything so whimsical as the votes of the people.
So what does that leave? Tonally, his confident swagger is more appealing to the Republican base than Romney’s unctuous aw-shucks wholesomeness — just as John McCain’s maverickiness was more appealing than Romney last time around. And we know how that worked out for the GOP. The Dems are confident that this is a gift from the heavens: The Stupid Party is stupid enough to put up a scowly, jowly fat guy whose name is a byword for everything from the Nineties Mr. and Mrs. Moderate don’t want to revive.
But Newt wouldn’t be where he is right now if the conventional wisdom were all that wise. It’s easy to dismiss the futurological mumbo-jumbo of his accumulated brainstorms — “the Triangle of American Progress,” “the Four Great Truths,” “the Five Pillars of American Civilization,” “the Five Pillars of the 21st Century,” “the Nine Zones of Creativity,” “the Fourteen Steps to Renewing American Civilization” — except that right now he’s heading for the nomination and Paul Ryan and Mitch Daniels aren’t. The Nine Zones and Fourteen Steps have been distilled to the One Singular Sensation: Newt lui-même. The SAS, the British special forces, have a motto: “Who dares wins.” Unlike Mitt, Newt dares — and he may yet win. As the old Dem bumper stickers used to say, “Newt Happens.”