The Amazing Newt

It seems that newts are slimy little things:

A newt is an aquatic amphibian of the family Salamandridae, although not all aquatic salamanders are considered newts. Newts are classified in the subfamily Pleurodelinae of the family Salamandridae, and are found in North America, Europe and Asia. Newts metamorphose through three distinct developmental life stages: aquatic larva, terrestrial juvenile (called an eft), and adult. Adult newts have lizard-like bodies and may be either fully aquatic, living permanently in the water, or semi-aquatic, living terrestrially but returning to the water each year to breed.

In short, they’re neither here nor there. They’re sneaky little shape-shifters and entirely unpleasant. They don’t make good pets. You don’t cuddle with a newt.

On the other hand, Sir Isaac Newton was rather amazing:

His monograph Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, lays the foundations for most of classical mechanics. In this work, Newton described universal gravitation and the three laws of motion, which dominated the scientific view of the physical universe for the next three centuries. Newton showed that the motions of objects on Earth and of celestial bodies are governed by the same set of natural laws, by demonstrating the consistency between Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and his theory of gravitation, thus removing the last doubts about heliocentrism and advancing the Scientific Revolution.

Many consider Newton the greatest scientist of all time, and one of mankind’s true great minds. And those are few and far between, in spite of what people say about Frank Zappa or Glenn Beck.

And then there’s Newt Gingrich – Newton Leroy “Newt” Gingrich – actually born Newton Leroy McPherson. Yes, he was named after the truly great mind, but his mother’s marriage to that McPherson fellow fell apart after only a few days and she later married an Army officer named Gingrich. She was only sixteen and these things happen. In any event, Newt eventually got a new last name and a new father, who presumably affectionately called the young tike Newt. That may have been a term of endearment, or a bit of passive-aggression. Maybe his new father realized that what he was dealing with was a sneaky little shape-shifter who was entirely unpleasant. That’s how many see the adult Newt now. He sneers and reminds everyone that he’s always the smartest man in the room – perhaps like Sir Isaac Newton, or so he seems to dream – but folks still call him Newt. They know, even if they don’t realize it.

But now, the night before the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich is poised to win handily – and perhaps win the Republican nomination – and perhaps win the presidency, unseating Barack Obama. The first is likely, the second is less likely. The third is anyone’s guess. Who wins the presidency may depend on how the Germans feel about the Greeks and whether the world’s banking system collapses when Greece inevitably defaults, and, as the Germans twiddle their thumbs and grin, the world plunges into something far worse than the Great Depression. Or something awful and not entirely unexpected may happen with the Chinese economy. Or, conversely, things may turn around and our economy surges and no one sees much point in getting rid of Obama now. No one knows.

But Gingrich is poised to win South Carolina. The Washington Post quotes an impressive list of big-gun political pundits saying so – after the last two debates Newt has this one in the bag. And there’s this item reviewing all the polling and the InTrade futures – Newt wins. You can bet on it. In fact, people do. And there’s the latest Clemson poll where Gingrich has a six point lead over Romney in South Carolina. Rick Santorum is at nine percent, which suggests the evangelicals down there have decided on Newt, in spite of the evangelical leaders meeting and deciding that Santorum is their guy, and God’s guy, and Santorum being as sanctimonious and noble and pious as he can be, only more so. But Santorum is done. The only caveat in the Clemson poll is that twenty percent of the voters were still undecided the day before the primary. They’re thinking about it. Don’t rush them.

But this may come down to the evangelicals, who, but for their leaders, seem fine with Newt. But Michael Kazin argues they are a dying breed, when you consider the aging of the Christian right:

Put simply, the Christian Right is getting old. According to the largest and most recent study we have of American religion and politics, by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, almost twice as many people 18 to 29 confess to no faith at all as adhere to evangelical Protestantism. Young people who have attended college, a growing percentage of the population, are more secular still. Catholicism has held its own only because the Church keeps gathering in newcomers from Latin America, Africa, and Asia, few of whom are likely to show up at a Santorum rally. To their surprise, Putnam and Campbell discovered that conservative preachers infrequently discuss polarizing issues from the pulpit. Sermons about hunger and poverty far outnumber those about homosexuality or abortion. On any given Sunday, just one group of Christians routinely grapples with divisive political issues: black Protestants, the most reliably Democratic constituency of them all.

There may be not much left of the Matlock and Jeopardy crowd, shouting get off my lawn at the young whippersnappers in the neighborhood. Gingrich and Santorum may have been appealing to the last few of those who once seemed so many. And that may be a miscalculation.

But it may not matter all that much, because if Gingrich wins South Carolina, Steve Kornacki argues here that Florida would be in play:

The Florida polling that now shows Romney crushing Gingrich would tighten dramatically. (Remember that in early December, when he was surging everywhere, Gingrich was the one with a commanding Florida lead; that’s how volatile these numbers can be.) This would set up a frantic ten-day campaign in Florida (which votes on January 31) that the media would likely portray as a referendum on Romney’s viability. There would probably be, as John Heilemann suggested on MSNBC earlier today, talk of party leaders lining up a consensus back-up candidate in the event of a second straight Romney loss (because Newt would still not be an acceptable option for most of them).

Yes, as Kornacki explains here, they see a newt, not a Newton:

The epitaph on Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign tombstone may end up reading, “No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t outrun his past.”

Think back to early December, when months of well-received debate performances (coupled with Herman Cain’s demise) finally turned into real polling traction for the former House speaker. He surged to lopsided leads in national and key early state polls, and with Iowa less than a month away his timing seemed almost perfect. Gingrich grew so cocky that he declared, “It’s very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I’m going to be the nominee.”

But the sudden, previously unimaginable possibility that Gingrich might win the Republican nomination spooked a very specific group of elite Republicans: those who remembered what an epic political disaster his four-year run as speaker was for the party. Together they used their influential perches to undermine his standing with the many Republican voters who don’t really remember the 1990s and who’d come to know Gingrich through his Fox-enabled rehabilitation as an “ideas man” and GOP elder statesman. Any tool they could find to puncture the Gingrich bubble they used, and their efforts (combined with those of a free-spending pro-Mitt Romney super PAC) quickly paid off.

Kornacki offers the who-did-what and when in those matters, along with the damage done by Newt’s second ex-wife telling the nation, on air, what a sneaky little shape-shifter, who was entirely unpleasant, Newt was. And Kornacki ends with this:

Newt’s wild mood swings and cruel treatment of her in the ’90s could be the kind of sensational development that nullifies whatever progress he’s made this week. And even if he does somehow pull out a win Saturday, the ghosts won’t just go away. It’s the story of his campaign: Whenever something goes right, the people who know him best are there to spoil the fun.

Maybe his mother should have named him Fred or Joe. The name Newton may have given him ideas. Mothers should be more careful in naming their children. Ask Cher about that.

But then Rod Dreher was thoroughly unimpressed by the Marianne Gingrich interview:

This Newt-is-a-sleaze anecdote is news, but it’s not new news. And that – plus her own squirreliness – makes me conclude that this thing won’t have legs. Especially after Newt’s I-am-outraged attack on the news media tonight. Demagoguery? Sure. But effective at stopping any potential fallout from the Marianne interview, which turned out to be pretty weak tea.

But Lloyd Grove disagrees:

In case anyone needed to be reminded of Gingrich’s outrageous hypocrisy, ABC helpfully spliced in footage of the then-adulterous speaker, in a breathtaking feat of compartmentalization, pursuing the impeachment of Bill Clinton for arguably less egregious behavior, denouncing the Clinton-Gore administration as having “less moral authority than any administration in history,” and continually defending the sanctity of marriage as a political talking point.

And there’s Margaret Carlson’s here:

Newt was not polling well among evangelical women before Marianne’s revelations, and surely won’t now. But he makes up for it with his surge among men in a state where divorce is not unheard of, despite the fact that 60 percent of Republican voters identify themselves as Christian conservatives. Residents of South Carolina divorce at a rate twice as high as for that den of iniquity, Washington, D.C. Many fewer people divorce in the bluest of states, Massachusetts, than in the Palmetto State, according to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics.

Ah, they understand sneaky little shape-shifters who are entirely unpleasant. That’s them. And there’s Jay Nordlinger in the National Review:

I wonder whether Newt’s “personal” record will hurt him, electorally. When you think about it, betrayal and divorce are as American as apple pie.

Well, maybe so, but why was Newt busting Bill Clinton’s chops about that blow-job way back when? And there was how Newt addressed the whole issue, as described by Tim Stanley:

To understand the full power of Gingrich’s answer, you really have to watch him give it. The former Speaker has three standard expressions: charmed bemusement (“Why are you asking me that, you fool?”), indignant (“Why are you asking me that, you swine?”) and supreme confidence (“That’s not the question I would have asked, you moron”). Each comes with its own number of chins. For his stunning “No, but I will”, Newt employed the full dozen. He looked straight down them, with half moon goblin eyes. “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”

By the time his chins unfolded, Gingrich was in total command of the debate.

That’s when he thought his name was Newton, not Newt.

But there was James Taranto’s claim here that Gingrich’s standing ovation for saying something else that “was the most compelling dramatization of racial progress so far this century [aside from Obama’s election].”

What? Ta-Nehisi Coates was having none of that:

When a professor of history calls Barack Obama a “Food Stamp President,” it isn’t a mistake to be remedied through clarification; it is a statement of aggression. And when a crowd of his admirers cheer him on, they are neither deluded, nor in need of forgiveness, nor absolution, nor acting against their interest. Racism is their interest.

So Coates, a black man, says he knows who is who here:

They are not your misguided friends. They are your fully intelligent adversaries, sporting the broad range of virtue and vice we see in humankind. If you are a praying person, you should pray for their electoral destruction in November.

And it gets worse, with Kristin Ford at Faith in Public Life reporting Catholic Leaders Challenge Gingrich and Santorum on Divisive Rhetoric around Race and Poverty:

More than 40 national Catholic leaders and prominent theologians at universities across the country released a strongly worded open letter today urging “our fellow Catholics Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum to stop perpetuating ugly racial stereotypes on the campaign trail.”

In the lead up to Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich has frequently blasted President Obama as a “food stamp president” and implied that some African Americans are more content to collect welfare benefits than work. Rick Santorum attracted scrutiny for telling Iowa voters he doesn’t want “to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.”

The open letter reminds the two presidential candidates, vying for Christian conservative voters, that U.S. Catholic bishops have called racism an “intrinsic evil” and consistently defend vital government programs such as food stamps and unemployment benefits that help struggling Americans.

The full text of the statement and signatories follows that, and there is this from the statistician Nate Silver:

The good news for Mr. Romney is that while voters often like to defy expectations in the early-going, they usually make fairly rational choices in the end. (Let me be bold enough to suggest that Mr. Gingrich, whose favorability rating is just 27 percent in an average of national surveys, does not ultimately have the stronger side of the electability argument.) Probably not since George McGovern in 1972 have voters nominated a candidate to whom the tag “unelectable” might be fairly applied. And Mr. McGovern’s victory came in part because of his superior understanding of the Democrats’ brand-new nomination system, which he had helped to design.

So Newt has favorability ratings in the cellar – he is unelectable – and he should win – or the other guy, who is equally unelectable, will be the nominee. What?

In the American Prospect, see Paul Waldman:

Predictions are dangerous, but I’m going to go ahead and make one right now: By November, the Obama campaign will have torn Mitt Romney into tiny little pieces, put those pieces into a wood chipper, and fed the dust that came out the other end to the worms. He’ll end up the kind of failed nominee that no one wants to associate themselves with when it’s over. Think Bob Dole after 1996, or Michael Dukakis after 1988.

Maybe they should nominate that newt after all. In fact consider the “Fox News Medical A-Team” – and specifically Dr. Keith Ablow – because he analyzes the newt’s marital history:

Here’s what one interested in making America stronger can reasonably conclude – psychologically – from Mr. Gingrich’s behavior during his three marriages: 1) Three women have met Mr. Gingrich and been so moved by his emotional energy and intellect that they decided they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with him. 2) Two of these women felt this way even though Mr. Gingrich was already married. 3) One of them felt this way even though Mr. Gingrich was already married for the second time, was not exactly her equal in the looks department and had a wife (Marianne) who wanted to make his life without her as painful as possible. Conclusion: When three women want to sign on for life with a man who is now running for president, I worry more about whether we’ll be clamoring for a third Gingrich term, not whether we’ll want to let him go after one.

And then there the biggest factor:

Two women – Mr. Gingrich’s first two wives – have sat down with him while he delivered to them incredibly painful truths: that he no longer loved them as he did before, that he had fallen in love with other women and that he needed to follow his heart, despite the great price he would pay financially and the risk he would be taking with his reputation. Conclusion: I can only hope Mr. Gingrich will be as direct and unsparing with the Congress, the American people and our allies. If this nation must now move with conviction in the direction of its heart, Newt Gingrich is obviously no stranger to that journey.

And Rod Dreher concludes with this:

At some point, you have to wonder when shamelessness crosses the line from character defect to psychopathology.

Maybe there is a psychopathology, although the good doctor seems to be a bit of a creepy guy just blithering. The psychopathology is clear. The right really does believe they’re victims. And Steve Kornacki explained that too:

It’s no mystery why the audience of Republicans so instinctively and passionately rallied to Gingrich’s defense. His final line was the key: that the liberal media is out to get Republicans and will stop at nothing to destroy them is an absolute article of faith on the right…. What Gingrich did brilliantly on Thursday night is to articulate this paranoid victimhood in a clear and compelling (for his audience, at least) way. It’s the same basic trick he pulled in this week’s other debate, when he connected with another strain of the persecution complex: that honest, tax-paying Republicans are the victims of a dependency class of poor people and minorities that Democrats intentionally enable.

And Steve Benen sums it up:

Conservative voters hate the media, so Gingrich exploits that hatred. Conservative voters don’t like feeling defensive about race and policy, so Gingrich tells them why they shouldn’t. His debate performances are like dopamine for the right-wing soul.

And because Gingrich understands this so well, the nature of the story shifts – it’s not about Gingrich’s scandalous personal life and his habitual adultery; it’s about those media scoundrels trying to keep Republicans down. GOP voters should feel sorry for Gingrich, the argument goes, because they feel sorry for themselves.

The fact that this article of faith is a fantasy is irrelevant. Indeed, it just takes a moment of independent thought to tear the house of cards down: was Gingrich condemning the “despicable” media when news organizations obsessed over Anthony Weiner’s personal life? How about Eliot Spitzer? Or John Edwards?

More to the point, when Gingrich was helping lead an impeachment crusade against President Bill Clinton, and the media’s obsession with a sex scandal was boundless, did Gingrich whine, “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country”? If he did, I missed it.

But for GOP voters in South Carolina, none of this matters. Gingrich “gets” them, and it’s why he’s now favored to win tomorrow’s primary.

But he’s still a slimy newt, not a Newton. And we have an interesting situation. Everyone knows what he is, really, but a good number of folks seem to like entirely unpleasant nasty little shape-shifters, who sneer at others, and who say they’re brilliant and only dumb-shits think otherwise. It’s very odd.

But it could have been worse. His mother could have named him Willard.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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