Republican Debate: Newt Gingrich Rolls Over, Plays Dead

One truth emerged from the 20th Republican blatherfest: Gingrich has pretty much thrown in the towel. Michelle Cottle on the ex-speaker’s last stand.

02.23.12 3:46 AM ET

The three words to best capture Debate Number 20: Blah. Blah. Blah.

Earmarks. The line item veto. Bailouts. Foreign aid. Entitlements. Birth control. Title 20.  Obamacare. Romneycare. Border fences. Guest workers. Women in combat. Iran vs. Israel. School choice.

An impressively wide range of issues were touched upon Wednesday night. But time and again, the discussion devolved into a scattered, disorderly, shallow, personal slapfest that did little to enlighten viewers as to the relative qualifications of these fine combatants. It was as though a pack of third-tier pundits—or American Idol judges—seized the airwaves to deliver their half-assed, gas-bagging assessment of how to save the republic.

In the end, one could be excused for asking whether anyone came out of this showdown looking like anything other than a blathering tool.

Maybe it was the format. While seated roundtables are fine for dinner parties and Meet the Press, they don’t lend themselves to formal debates. With each candidate slumped behind his own little desk, the men seemed to sag into their individual puddles of pontification. They looked too casual, like overripe delinquents sentenced to perpetual detention. Small wonder that, at one point, Mitt Romney began sarcastically applauding Rick Santorum’s criticism of him. So very, very junior high.

One thing Wednesday night’s showdown made clear: Newt has pretty much given up. Oh, sure, the Speaker threw a few good punches. Heck, in the first 10 minutes of the event he was talking smack about President Obama’s “bowing” down to the Saudis and promising all of America $2.50/gallon gas.

For the most part, however, Newtie spent the evening cozying up to the other boys. Gone was Gingrich the attack dog, replaced instead by Gingrich the enthusiastic, vigorously nodding wing man.

But whose wing man? Hard to say, really. In one moment, Gingrich was backing Paul’s objection to the current system in Washington. The next, he was backing Santorum’s take on foreign affairs. And time and again, he was making common cause with Mittens on one position or another.

Not that Gingrich was contradicting himself or staking out incompatible positions. But no question the Speaker has shifted gears from sneering in everyone’s face to offering up his version of support.

Newt’s moment has passed. He knows it. And now there is nothing left for him to do but try to lay the groundwork for an advisory position to whoever the nominee turns out to be.

Perhaps more important for a guy with a $500,000 credit line at Tiffany’s, as the Gingrich campaign winds down, he must mend fences so that his highly lucrative consulting business, which relies so heavily on the Beltway establishment scum he’s spent the last several months slamming, doesn’t suffer any blowback.

Newt’s was, for a few moments, an implausibly vigorous--and indisputably entertaining--run. But it’s nice to see that he, too, recognizes it’s over.