The Corner

A Thought Experiment from the Bizarro-Earth GOP Primary

I think the major political strengths and weaknesses of Romney and Gingrich more or less cancel out: Romney signed a state mandate into law, Gingrich once supported a federal mandate; Romney’s a solid debater who won’t make major gaffes, Gingrich is a superb debater whose own cleverness can be his worst enemy; Gingrich has a questionable personal morality but appears to have a principled vision for the country, Romney appears to have an impeccable personal morality but a questionable and perhaps unprincipled vision for the country; Gingrich helped assemble the first Republican Congressional majority in a generation but was forced out amid scandal, Romney ran a successful business and a deep-blue state but his success has pegged him as both a ‘fat cat’ and a ‘RINO’; Romney is perceived as the favorite son of the political ‘establishment’, Gingrich as consummate Washington insider. And so on.

I mention this in the context of my ongoing attempt to figure out the Newt Surge — why it happened, whether it will last, whether it’s like the Perry and Cain surges or something altogether different.

So my thought experiment is this: Imagine that Newt had spent the last six years running for president; fundraising, (re)building (burnt) bridges inside the party, establishing robust campaign infrastructure in key states, using the media to stay on the average American’s radar in an anodyne way. Imagine that, due to a combination of political acuity, dogged determination, and the GOP’s “it’s your turn next” tendency, Newt had emerged by the summer of 2011 as the ‘inevitable’ nominee. Now imagine Mitt Romney had left the governorship of Massachusetts for the private sector, and spent the last six years leveraging his political connections to pad out his net worth — not as a lobbyist, mind you, but as a managerial expert. Imagine he jumped into the 2012 race fairly early, but failed to make a major impact.

All other things being equal, does the Republican base spend these past few months looking for an anti-Newt? After the fizzling of the Bachmann, Perry, and Cain insurgencies, does Romney, being the last to find a chair when the music stops, take on this mantle and surge in the polls?

If you think the answer is ‘yes, Romney would enjoy such a surge’, that tells you there’s something a little irrational about the state of the primary, doesn’t it? If your answer is ‘no, Romney wouldn’t get any traction’ then how do you explain the fact that in the real world he does have such traction, and has maintained it for months, against all comers? Even if you think the hypothetical itself is flawed in some way or another, where you think it goes wrong is informative. If you think hypothetical-Newt could not have done what I described above, because he’d come out of his long battle with Bill Clinton a much-diminished villain in the eyes of many Americans, and besides had made too many enemies inside the Party, then again, how do you explain his actual surge? If you think hypothetical-Gingrich as frontrunner would not have inspired the yearning for an “anti-Newt” from the base, show me how hypothetical-Gingrich is any less the status quo-insider than actual-Romney.  If you think hypothetical-Romney couldn’t have done as I described above, that if he took that path he’d have turned into Jon Huntsman, how do you explain why actual-Romney is polling in the high 20s and Huntsman at the margin of error?

It’s all very baffling to me.


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