I think David French got it exactly right yesterday. If fortyish days out of Iowa, this is now a Romney-Gingrich primary — if Gingrich is the “anti-Mitt” — then it means we’re through talking about “establishment” versus “outsider” credentials. Both Romney and Gingrich are down-the-middle establishment conservatives. They both have friends in Washington. They both have committed the crime of making a dollar and a cent while wearing a suit and tie. Neither is a stranger to cutting a deal. They even have the same baggage. As Kate notes, Gingrich like Romney once supported a state-level individual mandate, and now cuts a number of distinctions, either vague or subtle, between the federal and state levels, between what he did then and what he’d do now, and so on.
Romney and Gingrich’s twin standing atop the polls indicates a large plurality, or even majority, of the Republican electorate realizes there tends to be, for good and for ill, a coincidence between insider-dom and presidentiality. Some commentators seem to think Gingrich is just the last guy to find a chair when the music stopped. But I don’t think that’s right. It’s worth recalling that after some (big) early stumbles, Newt’s campaign has been solid. His message has been consistent, and he’s earned near universal praise at every debate. It’s not like he just showed up. So “peaking at the right time” just doesn’t explain his rise. I think it’s something less random, more ordered than that. The primary has thus far exhibited a kind of telos (neatly illustrated in charts like this), in which the conservative base has shopped for an “outsider” candidate — fronting goodwill first to Bachmann, then to Perry, then to Cain, as if it were a line of credit — while moving, begrudgingly but inevitably, toward the insiders as each of the above proved unsatisfactory. I think I read somewhere the metaphor that Bachmann/Perry/Cain were the ones you dated and Romney the one you’d end up marrying. As weird and reductive as that is, it’s not exactly wrong either.
To extend the creepy metaphor — and assuming my premise is correct — what we now have is a kind of establishment love triangle. Will the base choose the sharp-looking executive with the impeccable personal morality or the frumpy, but charismatic, philosopher with the checkered past? Time will tell.
UPDATE: Several commenters have brought up a distinction between a “Washington insider” and an “establishment candidate.” Newt, they argue, is the former but not the latter, and Mitt the latter but not the former. The idea is that “establishment candidate” just means the candidate with the backing of the political elites. I think as a matter of semantics (and I take semantics seriously) this is a distinction worth making, but I’m not sure it makes a difference in this case — both Newt and Mitt have reservoirs of support and favors owed within the GOP establishment. If Romney has the preponderance, it’s only because he’s been running for president for six years straight. But then again, if Mitt has the preponderance, it isn’t a particularly loud preponderance, is it? Many GOP players seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach.