Newt Gingrich’s passionate one-man victory in the South Carolina primary has established the 2012 GOP nomination as a comic opera to enjoy during another winter of discontent.
Newt Gingrich dominated the stage this last week by performing all the roles—tenor, diva, orchestra, chorus; he even wore a hornèd helmet—and it was his genius to direct his talent at the comfortable grievances and posh crankiness of the subset of Republicans who vote in a South Carolina primary.
The GOP chairman Reince Priebus announces with the enthusiasm of a barker that South Carolina joins Iowa and New Hampshire in “record turn-out,” as if this adds weight to the evening’s receipts. Other observers are more suspicious about the early party primaries—three winners in three elections—and what lessons are learned so far.
First, the professionals can see that at least for the next few months the GOP is burdened with a handful of shopworn candidates who cannot be collectively cobbled into a winner: an erratic former speaker, a one-term Massachusetts governor, an ex-senator who was run out of his native Pennsylvania by 19 points, and a textbook libertarian who is looking forward to retirement. It is a truism of incumbent presidential elections that the contest is a referendum on the administration, not a hard measure of the opponent. Still, even given that Mr. Obama must struggle with a lifeless economy, the Republicans are shopping little more than re-animated political flesh from the late Twentieth Century.
Second, the Republican party knows that primary campaigns invariably lean to the candidate who is best organized and financed, and Mitt Romney, as tongue-tied and suspiciously awkward a character as he is, is surrounded by a bevy of expensive ops and major political actors who will grind down the field and gain Romney the nomination sometime in the spring. Politics is about cash, not ideas, not TV, not debates; and the chance of Mr. Romney’s losing to his rivals is negligible to none. The hootenanny on political websites about the contest being up for grabs is shilling for advertising dollars. It is a marvel that so many pundits can speak out as if this were a race between equivalent thoroughbreds. The Romney campaign bought both War Admiral and Sea Biscuit some time back; this matched race is vanity. If Romney doesn’t win going away, we will be in an alternative horse universe.
The final lesson is that Newt Gingrich did well in South Carolina because he has shaped his palaver the last years into a series of arias about how scary the world has become to Newt Gingrich and his faithful listeners. Gingrich’s victory speech in Charleston was woe-singing that transfixed the audience with omens and portents.
Mr. Gingrich warned about the dark lords of the media: “The American people feel that they have elites who’ve been trying for a half century to force us to quit being American and to become some kind of other system.”
Mr. Gingrich foretold the Red Doom of next January in the event he is not victorious: “If Barack Obama can get reelected after this disaster, right, just think how radical he would be."
Mr. Gingrich identified the secular monsters sweeping the land: “One of the key issues is the growing anti-religious bigotry of our elites.”
Mr. Gingrich promised that he will free the country from its indenture to that well-known robed, alien monarch: “I want Americans to become so energy-independent that no American president ever bows to a Saudi king.”
Mr. Gingrich capped his solo by invoking the ultimate presidential put-down, “President Obama is a president so weak that he makes Jimmy Carter look strong.”
After the South Carolina win, Newt Gingrich’s twenty-minute-plus speech, despite its relentless gloom, was greatly comforting to the audience because it was constructed from alarms and suspicions heard every day on Mr. Gingrich’s favorites, Fox News Channel and talk radio. The crowd loved hearing words it knows so well it can sing along, and no doubt the Gingrich voters at home cheered as well. Newt Gingrich is a thrill to the self-frightened; he can take them completely into the spell of the New Reign of Terror.
Does Newt Gingrich believe it? This is too hard to answer: Does the soprano think she actually is Anne Boleyn about to lose her head? What is more important is that, after South Carolina, Newt Gingrich’s rivals will likely go forward to Florida wailing away about the country as if it is filling up with demons, commissars, sheikhs, back-stabbers, parasites, usurpers. Romney and colleagues do not seem to be self-aware that they are as ridiculous as schoolchildren who repeat a famous ghost story like Mark Twain’s “The Golden Arm” at recess but scramble all the details and the timing.
It is to Newt Gingrich’s credit that he never tires of the delicious punch line. “Who’s got my Golden Arm?” he asks. “You do!” he answers.
This is as good a reason as can be found for why the predictably comical diva Newt Gingrich is still in the race.