A week and a half ago I publicly called the Republican nomination in favor of Newt Gingrich. Today I’m reading Ezra Klein, who has “21 Reasons Newt Gingrich Won’t Be the Republican Nominee for President.” I find Klein’s argument fascinating, mostly because it reveals what I think is a real disconnect between professional punditry and the realities of the modern Republican Party.
Before I get to that disconnect, I do want to address one thing. In my post predicting Newt would get the nomination I only ran the upcoming Republican contests through Nevada’s February 4th caucus. I pretty much argued that by then Newt would have the nomination locked up after racking up wins in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida, and after coming in at least a close second in New Hampshire. I suggested that all Newt had to do now was not blow himself up before the Iowa caucuses on January 3rd – when the actual voting begins – and then the next month would be a relative cakewalk as his campaign just snowballed with consecutive state victories.
But Ezra makes a good logistical argument:
There are eight weeks between the New Hampshire primary and Super Tuesday, and almost six months between Super Tuesday and the Republican National Convention. Gingrich might generate sufficient momentum to win a few primaries. But he can’t survive seven months as the frontrunner.
Essentially, what Ezra is arguing is that a slate of early wins by Gingrich will not necessarily turn the nomination into a rout, as I had pretty much supposed; if Romney digs in, goes on the offensive, and is supported by the Republican establishment and its house organs, then the contest really does turn into a marathon. “Super Tuesday” takes place on March 6th – a whole month after I ended my speculative analysis – which means that Newt will have 30 more days to self-destruct . . . something a lot of people are betting he can’t help but do.
I do think this part of Ezra’s argument is well-founded. I agree that the longer the nomination process drags on, the worse for Gingrich. He has way too much baggage and is way too thin-skinned and emotionally uneven to maintain the kind of unflappability that, say, Barack Obama demonstrated in 2008. I can definitely see Gingrich blowing his own self up.
But what I don’t understand is Klein’s belief that the 21 specific things that he identifies as problems for Gingrich are in any way going to hurt him with Republican voters. A lot of that stuff is inside-baseball, the kind of stuff that the political cognoscenti pays attention to but about which regular voters don’t know and won’t care. Some of it is stuff that the Republican base can easily forgive. (He cheated on his wife(ves)? Hell, son, we’re all only human, did he truly repent? He did? Well great then! – He’s found Jesus! That’s the guy I wanna vote for!) And a lot of it is flaky stuff that comes out of Newt’s mouth 18 times a day but that he has the perfect confidence to walk back and explain his way out of later.
Of course, Newt’s confidence in his ability to deflect attacks that he is a flake was in large part gifted to him by the very GOP Establishment that now seems horrified by the idea Newt might actually snag the nomination. These people have been telling the base for years that Newt was a “serious” person. The Republican base has watched Newt on the TeeVee, almost continually, since he left office in disgrace. For years they’ve watched him being asked by other Very Serious People to tell them what is what in the political sphere – that automatically makes Newt a Very Serious Person too. Thanks to the GOP Establishment’s desire for an attack dog about whom they could always have plausible deniability, Newt’s got built-in credibility with Republican voters.
So for all the 21 specific things Ezra cites, I don’t see a one of ‘em that can really damage Gingrich. The base knows who Gingrich is: he’s the firebrand willing to outshout a Democratic president and shut down the government in order to get his way. That is a stupid, stupid thing to do from a policy perspective, but it is an awesome thing to do if – like the GOP base – you think the most important thing in a candidate is his ability to stick it to the hippies.
The Crazies know who Gingrich is – he’s one of them. And the Republican Establishment can try to paint him as a loon, but they’ve invested too many years already convincing their voters that he really is not. They created him, now they’re stuck with him.
Newt Gingrich might lose the nomination simply because he cracks under the pressure of months and months of campaigning, but he won’t lose the nomination because the Republican base suddenly thinks that he is too “flaky” or too “liberal” or too “big-government.” Newt is the meanest attack dog the Republican party can field, and that is still really the only criterion by which most Republicans decide who to vote for.
DC pundits might think the GOP stands for things like “small government,” “sober government,” “cool-headedness” . . . but it doesn’t. It stands for sticking it to the hippies, every time, all the time – anything other than that is pure gravy. Newt promises to stick it to the hippies every day, and none of the other candidates do. This is why the only person who can prevent Newt Gingrich from grabbing the Republican nomination is Newt Gingrich.