Yes, I know: it’s amazing to even think about it, when you look back just a few months to the wreck of the SS Squarepants (as some idiot dubbed it). But when even Jonathan Alter is explaining to his MSNBC hostess why it’s time to start taking Mr. Newt seriously, you know the ground has shifted and, unlike the Costa Concordia, the ship is starting to right itself.
So let me second Mark’s notion that the man who has resurrected Newt is the same guy who put him in the ground in Iowa, Mitt Romney. In fact, all the anti-Romneys, past and present — Newt twice, Santorum, Perry, Bachmann — arose to fill the felt need of the conservative electorate that the once-rejected former Massachusetts governor was highly unlikely to have improved with age, and that just because it was “his turn” was no reason to hand him the nomination à la Bob Dole and John McCain.
The problem with Romney, it seems to me, is that not only is he the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, politically ill-wind speaking, he has no natural constituency — and that’s what’s keeping him mired in the mid-twenties while the not-Romneys (including the outlier, Ron Paul) scoop up the rest.
Just before the New Hampshire primary, some idiot tweeted, “If Romney is held below 40 percent, he’s toast; if below 30 percent, he’s meat.” As it turned out, he got 39.4 percent — lightly buttered toast. Because if quasi-favorite-son Mitt couldn’t convincingly sweep away the riff-raff in his own back yard, it bode poorly for South Carolina. (By contrast, Gingrich got 40.45 percent of the vote in S.C., and he was still splitting the anti-Mitt vote with Paul and Santorum.)
So if Romney’s homies didn’t turn out for him in the Granite State, where are they going to turn out? All the organization and money in the world can’t force folks to vote for you if they don’t want to, and now that Newt’s inoculated himself against further Super PAC attack ads and renegade ex-wives, it’s unlikely that Romney can carpet-bomb him as effectively as he did in Iowa. Newt’s now like one of those nuked Japanese film creatures that not only was not destroyed but is back, bigger, badder and more cheesed off than ever.
To whom does Romney really appeal? Who are his broken-glass voters? Yes, he seems like a pleasant enough fellow and no one doubts his business or organizational acumen. But he’s hurt himself badly in the debates — and not just, as the new conventional wisdom has it, in S.C., but right from the start. The stammering, the stuttering, the evasiveness, the boilerplate bromides, the rude and annoying way he turns to stare at his fellow debaters when they’re speaking — he’s an empathy-repelling Stepford Candidate; wind him up and he gives pretty much the same performance every time. Whereas Gingrich alone finally figured out that if it’s red meat that’s wanted, you might as well rip chunks of it from the flesh of the unctuous moderators and throw it right at the ravenous studio audience.
None of the usual political allegiances work for Romney. Unlike Santorum, he has no appeal to the working-class white ethnics, many of them Catholic, who used to be Democrats but since have found a home in the GOP. The absurd defense offered by his apologists that venture capitalism is the essence of the American Dream is not likely to sway voters for whom paychecks are earned with sweat, not favorable treatment in the tax code after you’ve made your pile.
Unlike Perry, Romney has no natural appeal in the South — where, no matter what the Constitution says about “no religious test” for office, his Mormonism is still the subject of much sotto voce muttering. His Michigan upbringing notwithstanding, he lacks Bachmann’s midwestern appeal (as well as her accent). Unlike Paul, he’s not a single-issue crazy, who can fire up his troops by waving the Federal Reserve’s bloody shirt. And while the Pennsylvania-born Gingrich is as regionally unanchored as Romney — Newt’s a northerner comfortable among southerners — somehow the former speaker has pulled it off, probably because he doesn’t try to fake it.
Lacking a geographic or ethnic base, he was always going to have a tough time. He’s a national candidate who hasn’t made it to the general election yet. And then, of course, he had the bad luck to be associated with Bain Capital, a tailor-made propaganda issue for the Democrats that Gingrich defensively pre-empted in response to Romney’s scorched-earth Iowa campaign against him.
So is Romney toast or meat? Neither, yet. He’s probably 50–50 to set Gingrich back in Florida, momentum or no momentum — a silly Washington press corps construct that assumes politics is like football, when in fact it’s more like baseball, a sport in which there is no momentum. The pitcher — or in this case, the state-by-state electorate — changes constantly. Every day is square one.
But Gingrich doesn’t have to win in Florida. All he has to do is hang on until the Super Tuesday donnybrook on March 6, where despite his Virginia blunder, the terrain favors him. Gingrich is a Civil War buff and he may finally have realized that while he doesn’t yet command the men and materiel that Grant had, being General Meade, the man who defeated Lee at Gettysburg and thus changed the course of the war, will be good enough for now.
So if Gingrich wins the nomination, can he beat Obama? The smart money says no, but you’d expect a poll-obsessed, racing-form consulting collection of media eunuchs to say that. (Heads have been rotating on MSNBC the past 48 hours as the metrosexual chatterers try to unearth the secret of Gingrich’s belligerent appeal, unable to wrap their minds around the fact that it’s the very belligerence that’s the appeal.)
The dumb money, however, says . . . maybe. In a fight between a puncher and boxer, between Grant and Lee, the boxer may sing and dance for round after round, but if the puncher ever catches up to him, it’s lights out. Gingrich’s genius in going after the media is that he knows they are Obama’s Praetorian Guard and shock troops rolled into one. If he can take them out — by making them look as ridiculous as they really are and thus stripping them of their pompous, bogus “morality” — he can sweep up the midwest, roll up the South, and very likely force the surrender in the same place Grant cornered Lee: the swing state of Virginia.
Or he could just blow up again and go down for the third time.