Whether the matchup between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney is the final bout on the GOP primary card is impossible to know. The whole season has been more like professional wrestling than boxing, with weird characters sporting implausible hair appearing out of nowhere to talk smack and explain why they are the greatest in the world. (I’m looking at you in particular, Mr. Trump.)
Still, let’s assume for the moment that it’s a Gingrich-Romney contest.
It’s quite a matchup. Romney has been brutalized for having too little personality, Gingrich for having way, way too much. Romney looks like the picture that comes with the frame. Gingrich looks like he should be ensconced in royal velvet as he gestures at you with a half-eaten turkey leg in one hand and a sloshing goblet of wine in the other. Romney seems terrified of fully committing to any idea. Gingrich speaks as if he just text-messaged with God.
Gingrich would have everyone believe he is the winner of the anti-Romney mantle not merely by default but by hard-won effort and a well-deserved reputation for conservative steadfastness. Many in the media, meanwhile, think that since Gingrich is taking the slot once held by Palin, Bachmann, Cain, and Perry, he is a conservative of similar stripe. And many liberals think that since they hate him so much, he must be really right-wing. (They made the same mistake with Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, both of whom were far less ideologically conservative than their press clippings indicated.)
The reality is more complicated. For starters, it’s not altogether clear that Gingrich is that far to the right of Romney.
Gingrich’s record — political and rhetorical — is so vast and diverse, there’s plenty of evidence to build almost any narrative you want. He’s said some of the most bombastic right-wing things of any mainstream Republican in our lifetimes, but he’s also reached across the aisle more frequently than far-more-liberal Republicans would ever dare.
As House speaker, he cut a deal with President Clinton on the budget. He infamously joined forces with Nancy Pelosi on climate change, with the NAACP on prison reform, and with Al Sharpton on education. He was one of the few movement conservatives to vocally back George W. Bush’s expansion of Medicare, and he continues to support ethanol subsidies with a straight face. And, of course, last April he tore into Paul Ryan’s budget proposal as “right-wing social engineering,” immolating himself in the process.
Gingrich has since retracted and modified his stance on the Ryan plan. And he’s called his pairing with Pelosi one of the stupidest things he’s ever done.
Still, those who dismiss Gingrich as hopelessly unelectable in the general election should at least keep in mind that Gingrich’s apostasies will make it harder to tar him as a cookie-cutter “right-wing extremist.”
The crucial question for most Republicans will be: Who would govern more conservatively? The candidate who answers that question to the satisfaction of the GOP base will likely be the nominee. But that question begs another: What will Congress look like?
If the Republicans take back the Senate and hold the House, you could make the case that Romney is the better man for the job. Given his unpopularity with the base of his own party, he would be on a much shorter leash and be expected to fly Ryan’s flag over the West Wing while making Republican proposals seem more reasonable to the public. He very well might be the technocrat in chief, implementing reforms not necessarily of his own choosing.
Gingrich, meanwhile, is much more of a wild card. It’s no secret he sees himself as a world historical figure, the last of the great statesmen. And part of that self-conception is his idea that statesmen cut grand bargains with the opposition when history calls for it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, if you know for sure when history calls for it. If the GOP controlled Congress, conservatives would be on constant “Nixon to China” watch with a President Gingrich.
Given the craziness of the season, I’ve been humbled enough to say I have no idea how this will play out. But I will admit, I’m looking forward to the next steel-cage match.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can reach him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.