In the end your view of the battle for the Republican party’s presidential nomination comes down to the degree of confidence you have that Republican voters, especially but not exclusively in the early primary states, remain capable of remembering that the election that matters takes place in November, not the spring. If you doubt they can manage this then you probably think Newt Gingrich is the bona fide front-runner; if you think they can then you’re liable to think Newt’s resurgence is just another teenage crush that will fade as swiftly as it developed. I’m in the latter camp, for what it’s worth.
There have been improbable Presidents before (some, including the man himself, might consider the present President such) but few so unlikely as Newt. And Obama was, from the beginning of his Senatorial career, a more probable President than Newt is now even if Obama’s path to power depended on its fair share of complimentary circumstances.
Ross Douthat argued yesterday that, in its way, Gingrich’s candidacy is based on a calculation comparable to that which persuaded Democrats to nominate John Kerry in 2004:
[E]ver since the 2008 election, the right has embraced a sweeping counternarrative, in which the president’s eloquence is a myth and his brilliance a pure invention. Take away his campaign razzle-dazzle and his media cheering section, this argument goes, and what remains is a droning pedant, out of his depth and tongue-tied without a teleprompter.
This is where Gingrich comes in. Just as Kerry’s candidacy represented an attempt to effectively out-patriot George W. Bush (“You have a war president? We have a war hero!”), the former speaker has skillfully played to the Republican desire for a candidate who can finally outsmart and out-orate Obama.
His promise to challenge the president to a series of Lincoln-Douglas debates, in particular, has been deliberately framed as a kind of professor versus professor showdown, in which the president’s weaknesses will finally be exposed.
“How does a Columbia-Harvard graduate, who was the editor of the law review … supposedly the best orator in the Democratic Party,” Gingrich asked recently, “how does he look himself in the mirror and say he’s afraid to debate a West Georgia College professor?” It’s a line that evokes a kind of conservative revenge fantasy, in which the liberal elitists who sneered at George W. Bush’s malapropisms and Sarah Palin’s “you betchas” receive their richly deserved comeuppance at the hands of Newton Gingrich, Ph.D.
But a fantasy is all it is.
Quite. But there’s a difference too, Few Democrats considered Kerry a perfect candidate but they pivoted to him because they reckoned, quite reasonably, he was best-placed to defeat George W Bush. (And he nearly did!) Few people in Washington think Gingrich is the candidate most likely to beat Barack Obama and, though national polls are not at this stage the be-all of anything, few people in the rest of the United States think so either.
Nominating Gingrich – that is, choosing the guy who makes you feel best about your team and doing so for kicks and the hell of it – might almost make sense if he were tasked with challenging a nigh-on unassailable incumbent. But the Republican nominee has a decent shot at winning the White House. This is not 1984 and nor is it 1972 or 1964. Selecting Gingrich would be an act of unpardonable folly and a declaration that the Republican party has lost its political bearings. That’s fine but it’s not serious politics. Newt isn’t Kerry, he’s Howard Dean. (And worse than that: he’s also Newt!)
If this is so and if GOP voters appreciate it to be so then Mitt Romney, recent stumbles notwithstanding, remains the front-runner and the most likely alternative is not Gingrich but Rick Perry who, though lacklustre and at times incompetent, would seem, at 2%, to be chronically undervalued by Intrade. (Brace yourself for a modest "Second Look at Perry" boomlet!)
None of this is very satisfactory. But Democrats had unsatisfactory options in 2004 too and yet, in the end, selected the least disastrous candidate available.
As for Gingrich, there’s a long, long way to go before Super Tuesday and, no matter what happens in Iowa (a mere caucus remember) plenty of time for him to fall. Attacks such as the video posted above, issued by Ron Paul’s web team, must eventually have some impact. And they will do so because Gingrich’s problems are not so much policy questions or debating chops but, fundamentally, matters of character and trust. And Newt can’t win those battles.
[Hat-tip for the Paul ad: Garance Franke-Ruta]
UPDATE: Ben Smith points out that at this stage in 2004 the Bush White house was sure Dean would be the Democratic nominee.