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.
If Romney’s orthodox Mormonism bothers evangelicals, so do Newt’s abandoned former wives and mistresses. Gingrich over the years has accumulated lots of enemies, but Romney doesn’t seem to have gained lots of friends. Some Republicans insist that Romney is not a conservative in a way they assured themselves that he certainly was four years ago when he ran against maverick John McCain. Others swear that beneath the conservative slogans, tea-party postures, and Reaganesque lectures, Gingrich’s actual record is more centrist or erratic than conservative.
How, then, did Gingrich surge ahead of not only the other non-Romneys, but Romney himself? By a brilliant political strategy of playing the senior statesman above the fray. A grandfatherly Newt focused anger on Obama and the media rather than his rivals and at the same time dispelled the worst memories of his firebomber younger self of the mid-1990s: The new Gingrich apparently would not like the slash-and-burn partisanship of the old Gingrich. Newt also made the brilliant calculation that in all the talk about who is the true conservative, most primary voters would agree that Romney’s flip-flop from a moderate to a conservative was far greater than his own from conservative to moderate. In counterintuitive fashion, Gingrich assumed that who was the more conservative in the past trumped whatever either was in the present: Whatever he or Romney asserted this year was not as important as what each had said and done a decade ago. Apparently, a conservative now in rehab was preferable to a born-again conservative.
Yet for the all sloganeering and invective, the truth is that voting for Gingrich or Romney is not so much an ideological as a personal choice, and one that says as much about the psychological make-up of the individual conservative voter as it does about the choices before him. The risk-takers, romantics, and ideologically pure have concluded that Gingrich unleashed is worth the gamble, and that it is better to win big or lose big than to plan on just squeaking by. They welcome the unending contact sport that we could expect from a President Gingrich, who would not just beat Obama, but repudiate Obamism itself. These are the guys who like passing on third down on their own ten-yard line with a seven-point lead; to them, going on fourth-quarter defense is not only not smart, it is a sure way to lose. In contrast, the more calculating know that romance and rhetoric can often disguise reality, and that it is always wiser to down the ball and run the clock out when you’re ahead.
Who knows at this early juncture who is right, or what fresh man or woman on horseback is still over the horizon? All that really matters is that those who detest Gingrich’s past recklessness and present instability, and those who are repelled by Romney’s calculated and constructed persona, nevertheless find both preferable to Barack Obama, whose visions for all of us for the next four years make, in comparison, the present misdemeanors insignificant.