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11.15.11

Michael Tomasky on Newt Gingrich's Momentary Explosion of GOP Support

First it was Rick Perry, then Herman Cain, and now Newt Gingrich is surging in the polls. Michael Tomasky on the GOP’s endless quest for a candidate more right-wing than Mitt.

Just who are these people telling pollsters that they’d be perfectly happy to vote for Newt Gingrich for president—and who have now even placed him in the lead? Gingrich is obviously never going to be the president of the United States. He’s extremely unlikely even to be the nominee. The standard line is that these second-tier candidates are getting their day in the sun because Republican voters don’t like Mitt Romney, and that’s true as far as it goes (except with regard to Herman Cain, whose appeal is obviously a little more genuine and enduring). But this goes deeper than discontent with Romney. These voters want to blow up the Republican Party—and someday, they just might.

First let’s talk about Newt. The idea that he’s a serious presidential candidate is preposterous. Even if he were the nominee, he’d get about 44 percent of the vote. He’d say crazy things. He’d reignite the whole Obama-is-a-Kenyan-anticolonialist business. Or he’d think up something newer and weirder. He’d be a disaster. I’d submit that even his home state of Georgia would be in play if he were the nominee. Georgia right-wingers would turn out in droves to support him, for sure. But the state’s left-wingers would turn out in droves to vote against him, and its moderates would probably tilt against him. He could conceivably do worse in a general election than Herman Cain.

The guy has more baggage than a Stones tour. These poll respondents probably don’t remember the government shutdown or even have any idea it ever happened. They’re also probably not quite fully aware that his wife is his ex-mistress, the woman with whom he was committing infidelity at precisely the same moment he was baying that Bill Clinton had driven America to ruination by doing the same.

Finally there are the Romneyesque aspects of Gingrich’s record, the parts where he’s flip-flopped or just said or done whatever because it seemed advantageous at the time. There’s his video with Nancy Pelosi speaking of the need for action on climate change, to take one notable example. That was in 2008, which is far too recent to explain away. Not long ago, he tossed in the towel and called this the “dumbest single thing I’ve done in years.”

But Gingrich keeps impressively at the job of doing and saying things that from a right-wing perspective aren’t so bright. Not long ago he told Jake Tapper of ABC that the big banks need to be broken up: “I think, in retrospect, repealing the Glass-Steagall Act was probably a mistake,” he said. “We should probably reestablish dividing up the big banks into a banking function and an investment function and separating them out again.” I’m not sure even Barack Obama has taken this position. It’s a thing most liberal politicians don’t even say. For a conservative one to say it—one who is cultivating Tea Party support, no less—is otherworldly. Gingrich will say anything depending on the moment, and he’s been saying anything for 13 years since leaving office, so there’s a long trail for Romney’s oppo team to survey.

This Gingrich boomlet is the same thing as the Michele Bachmann boomlet and the Rick Perry boomlet. It’s just people not wanting to say yes to Romney. I sometimes half think that if Jack Abramoff were running, he’d have his boomlet, too. But now here’s the serious question. Is the Anyone-But-Mitt industry flourishing because of something particular to Romney, some stylistic tic? Is it his plastic, Bob Forehead–ish personality and carriage? Could someone else with Romney’s dubious (from the right-wing point of view) record get away with it, someone less oleaginous, someone with a surer instinct for the anti-elitist one-liner? Culture and symbolism and authenticity mean a lot to conservative voters. So maybe it is just Romney.

As they detest their perfectly fine frontrunner and discard a series of others, Republican voters seem more interested in dragging the party farther to the right than winning.

Or maybe it’s something more. Consider: no one had those cultural and symbolic bases covered better than Perry. But he went down. Not because of bad debate performances. He tanked with right-wing voters because he made the fatal error of showing some humanity to the children of illegal immigrants. If this were about style, it would have been Perry all the way. But Perry failed a key litmus test, so we have to conclude we’re dealing with an electorate that is far more concerned with ideology than cultural button-pushing. Gingrich is likely to fail that test, as soon as people are reminded of some of the things mentioned above.

Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich aren’t conservative enough for them. Think about that. Of course they haven’t cast a vote yet. Maybe pragmatic concerns will prevail in the end. But right now, as they detest their perfectly fine frontrunner and inspect and discard a series of others, these Republican voters really do seem like people who collectively would accept losing next year if it means they can drag the party farther to the right and win in 2016 with a purist, say Marco Rubio. I hope in the meantime that Gingrich enjoys himself.