Sunday, December 18, 2011

Eye of the Newt

With less than three weeks to go before the Iowa caucus, guess who the front runner is? Newt Gingrich, that’s who. Yep, the guy left for dead only a few months ago, is now less than a month away from winning the first leg of the vaunted trifecta needed to landing his party’s nomination for president.

Talk about the tide turning.

Actually, Gingrich’s ascendency isn’t all that remarkable or unexpected. With Michele Bachmann all but dismissed as completely unelectable and Herman Cain falling on his own sword, the Tea Party was itching yet again for another anti-Romney candidate they feel can lead them to the promise land. In fact, not only has Gingrich’s stock risen over the last few weeks, but Ron Paul’s as well. The two are running neck and neck in Iowa, with the used-car salesman placing third.

Now, while it’s important to remember that winning Iowa isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – let’s remember that Mike Huckabee won in ’08 – it can be important strategically, especially if Newt wins. And that’s because while the polls in Iowa are extremely close, that is not the case in South Carolina – the final leg in the trifecta – where Gingrich is ahead by double digits over Romney. A win by Gingrich in Iowa and South Carolina could be potentially devastating for the Mittster.

Which might explain all the piling on that we’ve been seeing from many establishment Republicans over the rising fortunes of the former Speaker of the House. Old Mr. Congeniality has been getting his comeuppances at long last. Those who know him best and who have served him in the past are absolutely petrified at the prospects of Gingrich winning the nomination and have not been shy about voicing their concerns. And you thought all that stuff about elephants having long memories was just a myth.

What we’re witnessing here is a fundamental split within the Republican Party between the establishment and the rank and file. The establishment sees Gingrich and Paul as way too extreme, erratic and unelectable, while the rank and file – insert Tea Party here – sees them as personifying the very essence of what they want from a candidate. While Paul is far more the outsider than Gingrich, both men share two things in common: the ability to get under the skin of their own party’s leadership and looking authentic while doing it. By contrast, Mitt Romney looks like someone who’s trying to memorize Ronald Reagan’s lines from a 1980 speech. Electable, yes; believable, hardly.

That’s one of the reasons why Romney has been stuck in second or third place pretty much throughout this process, while the Tea Party has rotated in what it thought were its favorite sons or daughters to have a shot at the nod. First it was Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, followed by Herman Cain. All had their fifteen minutes of fame in the spotlight and all melted under the scrutiny of the bright light. And now Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are vying to see who can emerge as the last great hope for the oppressed and overtaxed hordes, with poor Mitt Romney once more looking in from the outside. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, as they say.

Well, it looks as though the Republican establishment may be taking matters into their own hands. One by one they are not only going out of their way to blast Newt, they are practically fawning over Mitt. Just this past Friday Romney got a huge endorsement from South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. The significance of this cannot be overstated enough. If Gingrich does indeed win Iowa, Romney must win New Hampshire and, if not win South Carolina, at least make a solid showing there. Haley’s endorsement may just have saved his bacon. Forget Chris Christie, this is huge. The endorsement of a southern governor and a Tea Party favorite is nothing to sneeze at. It also gives the right-wing faction yet another chance to look at the former Massachusetts governor.

That’s one of the reasons why Gingrich has slipped a bit in the polls over the last few days. Another is that more and more Republican voters are starting to take a closer look at the former Speaker and not liking what they see; by comparison Romney, if you can believe it, is more consistent, at least recently. He may not be a true disciple, but at least he doesn’t come with all that baggage. And what baggage it is.

Even if you give him a mulligan regarding his past shenanigans as Speaker of the House – which apparently many of his former colleagues aren’t willing to do – his most ardent of supporters admit that he is a walking time bomb. Erratic would be a word in a half. His Meet the Press interview in which he called the Paul Ryan budget “right-wing social engineering” has conservatives worried. Many still have not forgiven him for that slight; a slight that will most surely be dredged up by Obama in a general election should Gingrich win the nomination.

And that’s not the only time that Gingrich has stuck his foot in his mouth. In another interview he referred to the Palestinians as an “invented people.” In the latest Republican debate Gingrich didn’t back down from his remarks. “Somebody ought to have the courage to tell the truth. These people are terrorists,” he said. “It's fundamentally time for somebody to have the guts to stand up and say, ‘Enough lying about the Middle East.’”

And then there are his rather unique and dangerous views regarding the judicial branch that have drawn the ire of even some conservative scholars. In Newt’s world, if he doesn’t like a decision rendered by a court he should have the option to ignore it or to force the judge to explain his or her decision.

On a Face the Nation interview Gingrich said the following:

“Today you have judges who are dictatorial and arrogant, who pretend that they are the dominant branch and who issue orders that clearly are against the Constitution.”

When asked by Bob Schieffer to expound on his comments, Gingrich suggested that judges could be subject to subpoenas. When an incredulous Schieffer countered that they wouldn’t have to honor them, Gingrich just couldn’t resist digging the hole deeper:

“Bob, if that's true, than the court can't say something to the Congress either, can it? By your standards, this Supreme Court cannot dictate to the president and cannot dictate to the Congress. But they do. And there are clear provisions in the Constitution to re-balance it. There's a judge in San Antonio that issued a ruling so anti-religious, so bigoted, and so dictatorial on June 1st. He should be called in front of a committee and they should ask him, ‘By what right do you dictate to the American people?’”

This is the real Newt Gingrich – the consummate anti-Romney. A loose cannon that has a tendency to go off at the most inopportune moments, with no mute button and apparently no common sense. He’s been this way ever since he became the Speaker of the House in ‘95. His biggest critics say he just can’t help himself; his arrogance is his biggest undoing. Regardless of his seeming intelligence, he will inevitably say or do something so incendiary it will end up becoming a lightning rod for his opponents and a source of embarrassment for his party.

And that is why Iowa means so much this time around. A Gingrich win will make an awful lot of operatives in the GOP extremely nervous. The White House has never been closer than it is this coming election and to have it slip away with a candidate so thoroughly unreliable and flakey as the likes of a Newt Gingrich would be unforgivable.

If I’m Obama and the Democrats, I’m praying for a Merry Newt Christmas and a very Happy Gingrich New Year. Used-car salesmen be damned!

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