In Decline

01.26.12

Michael Tomasky: Newt Gingrich Past His Peak in the Jacksonville Debate

When Newt hears the cheers of a right-wing crowd, he comes to life. But without the applause, he deflates. In Jacksonville, he was like a Macy’s balloon on Thanksgiving afternoon.

The question that emerges from Thursday night’s debate is: Have we seen the end of Newt? Not only did he not have any South Carolina-style moments; he blew the chances he had for such moments, and blew them badly. The big moment came right before the first commercial break, when Gingrich tried to hit Mitt Romney on his investments in Fannie and Freddie, and Romney fired back about Newt’s lobbying (or advising or whatever it was). If Romney wins this nomination, that new debate coach deserves an awfully nice bonus out of that blind trust. Except: How was it that Romney ended up defending the individual mandate?! A reasonably eloquent defense, too.

What arrow does Gingrich have in his quiver besides the great debate one-liner that expresses right-wing grievance? He’s an adrenaline junkie. When he has that from a crowd, he can go out on the hustings for the next two or three days with the kind of joyous malevolence we’ve seen so often over the years. But when he doesn’t, he deflates like a Macy’s balloon on Thanksgiving afternoon. And I hear the hissing of air, as I’m sure a lot of people do. Gingrich needs to play some kind of big card in the next three days. Bain Capital or Obama-Romneycare or any existing issue won’t do it for him now. Those story lines are settled, and they can only do Romney so much damage at this point. Gingrich’s only hope is to throw something new against the wall and hope that it sticks.

I think that a month or two from now, the epitaph of this contest might well end up being something like: The establishment guy won, the next-in-line guy won, but he got pushed a little farther this time than the next-in-line guy did in 2008 or 2000 or 1996. If Barack Obama wins reelection, will the next-in-line guy in 2016 finally be pushed off the cliff? Will the insurgent vote finally say, “It’s Our Time!” Who will the next-in-line guy even be in 2016, anyway? All interesting questions, but all far off. For now, it looks like Newt peaked last week.