Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Inconvenient Republican

Donkeys and elephants alike -- indeed, political junkies of every stripe -- have been watching the Republican primary process with the kind of morbid fascination previously reserved for first-century Roman citizens. This sort of carnage is not for the squeamish.

The process has also been likened to the arcade game whack-a-mole; every time a candidate pops his head above the rest of the pack, he gets malleted down. Mitt Romney has been the most enduring of the labor, but the Mitt-whackers have industriously pounded away with great fervor at the Cayman Island-shaped bull’s eye on the top of his head, and he suffered the ignominious distinction of losing two contests in a 24-hour period. Iowa, in a failed attempt to mitigate its incompetency, declared Rick Santorum the winner of its caucus late last Friday evening, and South Carolina resurrected a beleaguered Newt Gingrich with a stunningly convincing victory on Saturday.

As of this writing, it appears to be shaping up as a two--mole, er…man, race between Romney and Gingrich, with Mitt holding a decided edge in organization and fundraising. Time will tell if either of the two have the resources and the stamina to cross the finish line before the Republican conclave in Tampa in late August, but at this juncture it behooves us to take a look at the hysteria surrounding the resurgence of Newt Gingrich.

I’m far from the most experienced political observer on the scene, but I have been paying attention to one degree or another since Kennedy recognized the wisdom of a close shave and a blue suit in the first televised debate in 1960. I’ve seen them all, casting my first vote in 1972 -- for Richard Nixon -- but never, no, not ever, have I witnessed the degree of vitriol that is daily being hurled at Newt Gingrich.

It comes from all quarters and it’s not just edgy, it is downright vicious. It hints of some underlying panic -- as if what is being challenged is not just the bloated federal bureaucracy or unsustainable entitlements, but the very underpinnings of our republic. It seems to go deeper than just a fear of down-ticket disaster; critics hint darkly at the permanent destruction of the Republican brand.

But what this really is, I think, beneath the strident accusations of decades-old misdeeds and betrayals, is a struggle for control of the Republican Party.
The Democratic wave election of 2006, the nomination of John McCain, the election of Barack Obama, the bipartisan bailouts and TARP -- all functioned as alarms that, when combined into one jarring cacophony, served as a wakeup call to the sleeping conservative majority in America. It led, directly, to its coalescing around a movement called the Tea Party.

Originally a welcome ally to a Republican Party still reeling from its disastrous losses in 2006 and 2008, the Republican establishment started to realize they had climbed on the back of a young and exuberant colt, one that they could and would ride to victory in race after race in 2010 -- but there was a caveat. Occasionally their mount would veer uncontrollably off the track to pursue its own objective, oblivious to the pleadings of its rider to for-God’s-sake get back on course. And so the tea party movement gave the Republican establishment Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell, and so demolished liberal GOP candidate Deidre Scozzafava in NY-23 that she suspended her campaign mere days before the election -- and threw her support to the Democrat. Since it was a special election, Ms. Scozzafava had been appointed by Republican Party bosses; there had been no primary, and hence no opportunity for the conservative/tea party wing to push for a more conservative standard-bearer.

Which brings us back to Newt Gingrich and the inconvenient Republican.

It’s no secret that when Newt debates, Newt scores. In the aftermath, he invariably rises -- and rises quickly -- in both state-wide and national polls, and when deprived of a debate platform he falls. This phenomenon was never more apparent than it was in the period between Monday, January 16th and Friday, January 20th.

On Monday, facing a South Carolina primary in five short days, he trailed Mitt Romney in polls by as much as fifteen points. They debated Monday night and Gingrich’s “food stamp President” defense brought the crowd roaring to its feet with the first debate standing ovation in recent memory. By Thursday morning, he led the polls by three.

On Thursday evening Gingrich faced potential disaster in the form of a looming interview with his second ex-wife, who promised to expose the lurid details of their 2000 divorce. When debate moderator John King served up the first question of the night on that very subject, the former Speaker took dead aim and fired -- on the media.

Nothing thrills tea party-types more than seeing a candidate calling out the media as the progressive shills that most of them are; the best of the lot hide behind only the thinnest veneer of objectivity -- the worst are open and unapologetic about their disdain for the right wing in general, and the tea party movement in particular.

At 7:00 pm on Saturday night, within seconds of the polls closing, Newt Gingrich was declared the winner of the South Carolina Republican primary. He had beaten Romney by a dozen points.

When it comes to defending conservative beliefs, nobody talks the talk quite like Newt Gingrich. Believing that he will walk the walk is a different matter -- a matter of faith -- but so many tea partiers and conservatives have decided they can live with the uncertainty that as of this writing, the nomination is as much in Newt’s grasp as anybody else’s.

So who is this inconvenient Republican? He is the Gingrich supporter. He is the Gingrich supporter who refuses to listen to “establishment” reason. He is the rooter for the underdog, the defender of the paunchy and mussed in his battle against the slick and coiffed. This inconvenient Republican is defying the old guard, refusing to listen to the dire warnings -- perhaps at his own peril, but he no longer cares. He is looking forward, refuses to look back, and cares nary a whit about the man Gingrich was in his scufflin’ days.

He turns a blind eye to the quirkiness and the quicksilver temper; he applauds the high road Gingrich attempted to walk through the early part of the campaign, which is why he forgives Newt now for going so disappointingly negative when it was either that, or, as the former Speaker himself put it, “unilaterally disarm and…drop out of the race.”

Establishment types will have to live with, and eventually be forced to accept, this inconvenient Republican. He is sucking in great lungfuls of fresh air after decades of inhaling stale platitudes about compassionate conservatism. He is awake and alert and Gingrich makes him feel so alive. He knows Newt has a puncher’s chance -- but only a puncher’s chance, no more -- and yet still he hangs on to every politically-incorrect word that’s uttered.

He also knows that if Newt wins, he wins, too. This inconvenient Republican is delivering a message to the establishment GOP from Capitol Hill to his local county committee: you may beat us, or you may not. But I’m not going anywhere, and sooner or later you’re going to have to deal with me.