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09.17.10

The GOP's Fat Elvis

Newt Gingrich is back, lecturing the timid Republican leadership on how to win the fall. John Batchelor on why they put up with it.

Newt Gingrich spoke to a closed-door breakfast of the Republicans of the House the other day after the last primaries, and the irony you need to know is that the only members who showed up were the clueless Boehner crew, who are not in on the joke that in the GOP cloakroom they call Newt "Fat Elvis."

The young House members have spent the last four years living under siege from the Democratic battalions while their ranks thinned and their cash dwindled, and all the while Newt Gingrich was in the pulpit of Fox News castigating them for their gutlessness. The young remember the scoldings and the sermons, and, much like a child who grew up to be a star athlete, they resent having been kicked by Grandpa Gingrich when they were helpless—and yet they are not yet ready to belt back at him now that he comes preening to show how much he loves them.

"The young people who have no ties to him," an observer explains of Gingrich, "they think, what an asshole."

Does Gingrich notice that the young do not turn up to celebrate his wisdom? Not much, because Gingrich wanted only the obeisance of being feted at the breakfast as a "special guest," so he could go on Fox News to boast, as one indifferent observer put it, that "I addressed the House Republicans, and they need me." Last Wednesday, Gingrich filled the cozy audience's time by dispensing cookie-cutter advice such as, you should have more than $50,000 in your NRCC account if you're serious about the majority; and such as the Gingrich genius, "Any of you who think this is locked doesn't get it."

The more useful question than why Gingrich lays himself out for ridicule by the young and restless (and it is likely he hears the snickers when he walks in) is why do Minority Leader John Boehner and his leadership team put up with a busybody?

"You appease Newt," a Republican concludes, reminding me again that John Boehner and his "Young Guns" are all conflict-averse, "and then he won't say bad things about you on TV."

Gingrich has been emailing House members for years with his searing advice and grandiloquent concepts, and everyone is mostly used to the fact that Boehner puts up with it just as if he was still Newt's waterboy and bagman from 1995, handing out Big Tobacco checks to good soldiers on the floor of the House. In sum, Boehner is not afraid of Newt, but then again he acts as if he is beholden in the way of a co-dependent dealing with an abusive and cranky older relative.

The best description for this strange family arrangement follows along the satirical description of Gingrich as the "Fat Elvis" of the Republican Party. A wag in the cloakroom observes of Gingrich, "He's turned Boehner and Cantor into Red and Sonny"—a reference to Red and Sonny West, the Elvis bodyguards during the years of drug abuse, who were charged with fetching Presley's banana sandwiches and cleaning up after his rampages. "It's [Gingrich's] self-satire."

“The young people who have no ties to him,” an observer explains of Gingrich, “they think, what an asshole.”

Boehner and Cantor are both suffering the same sort of open mockery as Gingrich from the young House members, and they endure it with flustered dignity. The GOP House is not a dysfunctional family; it is better understood, according to a disgusted member, as “6-year-olds on a sugar high.”

The imminent wave election prospect has deeply rattled Boehner—as well as the self-promoting trio calling themselves " Young Guns," Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan. A wise ally who has watched this transformation comments on the peculiar phenomenon of how the GOP House leaders are trying to explain their suddenly rosy future to the media and to the donors: "The beauty of what they're going through is that they have nothing to do with the success, but they don't know it."

The snickering fiasco of the Gingrich breakfast is an aspect of this quandary. The Republicans are like lads holding a winning lottery ticket, yet are seeking philosophical reasons for their unearned riches before they cash the check. By standing in front of Gingrich, Boehner and the Young Guns hope they will be associated with a golden age of Republicanism. At the same time, Boehner makes the same boneheaded mistakes as before, such as when he went on national television last Sunday and goofed on the tax-cut question.

At the breakfast, after Gingrich cast his pearls, Boehner—who hails the former speaker with a hearty "Newt!"—spent many tense moments trying to explain to the bored audience how he didn't mean what he said about voting for the president's tax hike if it was the only choice he was offered, and that the rascally media had twisted his words. The audience tsk-tsked in sympathy. The conference is understanding of Boehner, because everyone knows, from the elderly to the puppies, that John Boehner will say anything any time that keeps him from feeling unwelcome.

Boehner's personal foible of fear of conflict, his yearning for comity regardless of incoherence, is the door that is always open to the bullying Gingrich—who is genuinely self-hypnotized to believe he is presidential timber. The next excitement for the House members is that Boehner promises a document, "America Speaks Out," that is constructed by the footman Kevin McCarthy to represent the email suggestions of tens of thousands of Republicans. Boehner hopes to imitate the "Contract With America" that he helped Gingrich write back in 1994 and that Gingrich has been using as a carte blanche ever since to get what he wants from the GOP.

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Another sturdy Republican comments with a great deal of irony of the lavish bedlam at the baronial National Republican Club of Capitol Hill, "The Capitol Hill Club is swarming with donors and lobbyists. The DCCC is a graveyard. What's that tell you?" What it describes is a wave election that is so far advanced that the hapless surfers in the House cannot do anything too self-ridiculing, not even using Newt for a surfboard, to stop it.

John Batchelor is radio host of The John Batchelor Show in New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Follow John on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube.