It seems it was a weekend for deciding things. The guys from Baltimore won’t be going to the Super Bowl – and neither will the guys from San Francisco. They lost their Sunday games. And in two weeks it will be the New England Patriots and New York Giants, who won, facing off against each other, if you follow such things. Most people do. Nothing consequential hinges on the outcome of any of it, but people need their diversions, and surrogate combat will do nicely. In a world where passion and enthusiasm have become absurd – given that no one’s going anywhere and everyone eventually will be ignored if not betrayed at all turns – there’s football, where you can pretend something matters. You may lead a life of quiet desperation, as Henry David Thoreau said most men do, but you can scream enthusiastically about Tim Tebow – but just not this year. You grab whatever meaning in life you can, however absurd it might be. It’s still meaning.
But something else was decided the evening before the playoff games between the giant mutants in pads and helmets, and perhaps it was consequential. There was a political playoff game, the South Carolina primary, where – as no one would have predicted ten days before the thing – Newt Gingrich stunned the political world by winning big:
With 99.49 percent of precincts reporting at 11:16 p.m. ET, Gingrich had received 40 percent of the vote in South Carolina. Mitt Romney followed in second with 28 percent, Rick Santorum received 17 percent, and Ron Paul received 13 percent.
Romney, who delivered his speech just after 8 p.m. ET on Saturday night, said: “This race is getting to be even more interesting … This is a hard fight because there’s so much worth fighting for.”
Well maybe, but maybe he won’t be going to the Super Bowl, the general election, facing off against Obama in November. He may have been eliminated, like the Baltimore Ravens with that missed field goal in the final seconds. This was Mitt’s missed field goal. Yes, Gingrich is a nasty and mean dude, with a nasty past both political and personal, but the voters clearly preferred him to Romney. And Andrew Sullivan, who followed events as they unfolded, concluded that evening that it was all over for Romney:
This is the Republican crack-up people have been predicting for years. Gingrich is on a roll. I think he can win this – and then lose this in a way that could change America history. That is a brief impression in one moment of time. But I cannot see Romney winning this at this point. They are just not into him, and he’s an awful candidate.
It seems Gingrich just captured the zeitgeist, of the party and perhaps the nation:
This is what the GOP now is, and it deserves its spokesman. But do not under-estimate the appeal to some of the idea of humiliating and removing the first black president. That’s what Gingrich is really about. He is giving them what they want. And it’s meat that has barely seen a skillet. …
And the rage among some about a black president actually exercising authority is real. This man can roil it brutally, shamelessly, mercilessly. And he will.
What is Sullivan talking about? Maybe it was Gingrich’s victory speech, which the New York Times says exploited racial resentment and hatred of the news media to connect with furious voters:
He was helped by Mitt Romney’s halting answers about his tax returns and his finances, and by Rick Santorum’s tepid campaign, in which he compared himself to warm porridge. But Mr. Gingrich won this largely on his own. He had a much better sense of the raw, destructive anger at President Obama swirling around a highly conservative and combative state, and he reflected it back to voters everywhere he went.
South Carolina has moved sharply rightward since Mr. Obama arrived on the national scene. In 2000, 24 percent of state voters said they were “very conservative,” but that number jumped to 34 percent in 2008. Now it is up to 37 percent, according to exit polls. Two-thirds of Saturday’s voters said they supported the Tea Party, reflecting the election in 2010 of four South Carolina freshmen who are among the most extreme members of the House.
This was his kind of crowd:
In one of the most telling results of the exit polls, most voters said that cutting the federal budget was more important than encouraging job growth. At a time when more than 13 million people remain unemployed, these voters do not want the government to do a thing about it, possibly because it might improve Mr. Obama’s re-election chances.
Mr. Romney’s foam-rubber ideology was not built for an electorate this rigid.
And this was just a nasty business all along:
He repeatedly called Mr. Obama “the greatest food-stamp president in American history,” and lectured a black questioner at Monday’s debate about the amount of federal handouts to blacks, suggesting their work ethic was questionable.
On Thursday, in the derisive tones of a radio talk-show host, he said Mr. Obama’s cabinet looked like Mickey Mouse and Goofy. At that night’s debate, he lashed into the moderator for asking a perfectly reasonable question about his ex-wife’s allegation that he wanted an open marriage, saying it was typical of an “elite media” that was trying to protect the president by attacking Republicans.
That was just what South Carolina voters wanted to hear, the signal that he would not only challenge Mr. Obama but work to bloody him, to destroy his dignity. As one voter told a reporter, “I think we’ve reached a point where we need someone who’s mean.”
And that’s what they got:
Mr. Gingrich shocked Mr. Romney by making an issue of the jobs he destroyed in his leveraged-buyout firm, and he is clearly prepared to take negative campaigning against Mr. Obama to a new low. In his victory speech, he even descended into Rick Perry territory by accusing the “elite media” of anti-religion bias. Is that really what Republicans across the country want from their nominee, or is South Carolina, with its history of acute racial tension and contrarianism, simply sending a singular, extreme message?
That’s an interesting question, and South Carolina was the first state to secede when it came to war way back when, with the first shots of the Civil War fired there, and was the last state to continue, until very recently, to fly the confederate flag over their capital, in a big fuck-you to their black citizens. They may be a throwback to a nasty past, or a harbinger of our future. And as this editorial notes, South Carolina may be an aberration or a bellwether. They hope for the former, but they’re not sure. Of course Newt says they’re a bellwether.
And as for what actually happened here, Politico’s Jonathan Martin notes that less than two weeks ago Mitt Romney seemed all but certain to become the Republican presidential nominee but now Romeny is weaker than ever:
The establishment favorite didn’t just lose South Carolina – he got thrashed. Less than a week after he was leading in the polls here, Romney found himself taking a twelve-point beating and dropping all but three counties of the state’s 46 counties.
Romney’s thumping defeat – and his verbal miscues in the days before the election – has many Republicans worried that he’s a more brittle candidate than they thought. As in the past, he had difficulty connecting with the party base and was walloped by Gingrich among conservatives and voters supportive of the Tea Party. It’s the former speaker who is captivating party activists looking for somebody to channel their burn-it-down anger toward President Obama and elites. …
But the statement made in South Carolina wasn’t entirely about Gingrich’s attributes. He also served as a vessel for rank-and-file voters to send a message.
“The Republican primary electorate does not intend to do what the Republican establishment tells them,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a longtime strategist, comparing voters here to the independent-minded class of House GOP freshman.
So this was the triumph of those Tea Party freshmen congressmen types – no compromise, ever – tear it all down unless we get exactly what we want. And Mitt wasn’t it:
It was impossible not to see the results as an indictment of Romney, though. The pulses of conservative activists just don’t go racing for the frontrunner — and he’s paying a price for his inability to capture his party’s spirit.
“He has a passion deficit,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), diagnosing Romney’s condition.
But there’s the other view:
Romney backers are incredulous at the idea that Gingrich, with all his well-documented private baggage and public inconsistency, would somehow be a more competitive general election candidate.
“Really – Newt?” asked former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “Are you serious? To look at the field and say Newt is the outsider defies facts.”
Yes, and Steve Kornacki calls this the GOP’s South Carolina nightmare:
Newt Gingrich wanted to make Mitt Romney’s life miserable, and now he’s succeeded.
After getting blown out in Iowa on Jan. 3, the former House speaker all but announced he was transforming his presidential campaign into a one-man crusade to exact maximum vengeance on Romney, whose super PAC allies had crushed Gingrich’s December surge with a barrage of negative attacks. Gingrich then suffered through a predictably miserable week in New Hampshire before moving to friendlier turf in South Carolina, where he completed one of the more improbable turnarounds in modern presidential campaign history on Saturday night with a startlingly lopsided victory over Romney.
The good news for Romney is that he can probably make most of his troubles – not to mention Gingrich himself – go away with a solid win in Florida. The bad news is that Florida will look infinitely more imposing to him at the start of this coming week than it did at the start of this past one, when polls showed Romney opening a lead of more than 20 points. But the poll numbers in Florida, as elsewhere, have been absurdly volatile; it was just over a month ago that Gingrich enjoyed a 27-point lead over Romney. So the race in the Sunshine State should tighten dramatically in the days ahead, if it hasn’t already.
And Florida may be Newt’s kind of place too:
Florida proved itself in the 2010 elections to be particularly hospitable to the Tea Party strain of Republicanism that powered Gingrich’s South Carolina surge – and that has long been suspicious of Romney. In that year’s GOP gubernatorial primary, Rick Scott, a Tea Party-aligned outsider with a troubled past whose nomination state and national party leaders feared and strongly discouraged, defeated Bill McCollum, a well-credentialed political veteran with broad support from the party establishment. On the surface, at least, the dynamics of a Romney-Gingrich battle are rather similar.
Disrupting Romney’s easy glide to the nomination and forcing him into such a precarious position gives Gingrich at least a measure of the revenge he’s coveted.
And Kornacki sees a number of possibilities here, like Romney actually getting his act together:
Romney did his best to project confidence and steadiness in his concession speech. What he seems to be counting on is that the GOP’s opinion-shaping class will respond to Gingrich’s win Saturday night the same way it responded to his surge in early December: with panic.
Much has been made of the role the pro-Romney super PAC played in undermining Gingrich last month, and for good reason. But his poll numbers didn’t just collapse in Iowa, where the ads aired; they fell everywhere. That points to the role played by many of the right’s leading voices, commentators, activists and elected officials who remember with horror Gingrich’s run as House speaker in the 1990s and who used their platforms to lash out against him. Their warnings trickled down to rank-and-file Republicans, who began to get cold feet.
That basic pattern, in fact, has played out multiple times during the GOP campaign, with nervous party elites helping to beat back surges from candidates they saw as unfit for the nomination. Romney clearly hopes the elites – and his super PAC buddies – will do some dirty work for him again now, arresting Gingrich’s post-South Carolina momentum and leaving Romney in position to score a Florida victory that would silence the doubts about his viability.
Well, that’s possible, but how Romney did in Iowa and New Hampshire weren’t that impressive, and his poll numbers still fall:
So it can’t be ruled out that Gingrich will roll his sudden momentum into Florida, capitalize on the state’s Tea Party-friendliness, and engineer an equally impressive follow-up triumph – one that might lift Gingrich into a clear lead nationally and in the next wave of states.
Or maybe the Florida result won’t prove much at all and we’re in for a long hard slog:
The scenario is that South Carolina firmly establishes the GOP contest as a two-man race, with the Tea Party wing of the party largely uniting around Gingrich and everyone else siding with Romney. The two men would then trade wins and losses through a drawn-out, virtually momentum-less primary season…
But then there’s what Kornacki calls his chaos theory:
What if Romney suffers such a bad loss in Florida that his campaign melts down completely and elite Republicans lose confidence in his ability to stop Gingrich? If they really are committed to stopping the former speaker, these elites would then be in need of a Plan B, leading to the “white knight” scenario – a new candidate drafted into the race who could qualify for the late big-state primaries and to prevent Gingrich from racking up the delegates he’d need for a first ballot nomination. There are many reasons to sniff at this possibility, not the least of which is that it’s unclear if the GOP has any candidate on the sidelines who would be capable of this. But if Mitt can’t get the job done in Florida, expect to hear it mentioned a lot.
Romney surrogate and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called Newt Gingrich an embarrassment to the Republican Party on Sunday, one day after the former House speaker rode a late surge to victory in the South Carolina primary.
“I think Newt Gingrich has embarrassed the party, over time,” Christie (R), who has endorsed Romney, said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. “Governor Romney never has.”
When pressed on how Gingrich had embarrassed the Republican Party, Christie mentioned said that Gingrich had been pressured to resign from the House of Representatives in 1998 and had been fined for House ethics violations.
“We all know the record,” Christie added. “I mean he was run out of the speakership by his own party, he was fined $300,000 for ethics violations. This is a guy that’s had a very difficult career at times and has been an embarrassment to the party.”
Christie suggested the former House speaker’s record could predict what he would be like as president. “I’m not saying he will do it again in the future, but sometimes past is prologue,” Christie said.
The long-knives are out. Christie isn’t defending Romney here. And John Heilemann sees other factors at play:
Contrary to the received wisdom up until now, Gingrich is the favorite in the Sunshine State. Yes, Romney has the financial advantage. Yes, he has been on the air with ads for weeks. Yes, there has been early voting in Florida under way for weeks, too, during which time Romney’s air of inevitability will have given him an edge. But Florida is a closed primary, the first contest so far in which only registered Republicans are allowed to cast ballots. And the state’s GOP voters are far more conservative and anti-Establishment than many people understand. This is especially true in the panhandle of northern Florida, where Gingrich is likely to take up residence for much of the time between now and the vote on January 31. But watch for Gingrich to play hard for the state’s Hispanic voters – and not just the Cuban-Americans who are thick on the ground in South Florida but also the polyglot Latino population around Orlando – by emphasizing his stance on immigration, which is notably more moderate than Romney’s. Between all this and the wave of momentum and free media coverage he’ll enjoy coming out of South Carolina, the former speaker, I think, has the upper hand, though not by a lot.
And Heilemann cites the influential conservative fellow Erik Erickson saying that Romney really needs to “refine his message, not sharpen his knives,” and suggests Romney will never take Erickson’s advice:
Incredulous at the notion that anyone on God’s green earth could ever take Gingrich seriously as the Republican nominee, their plan is to step up their attacks on him, beginning at the debate in Tampa tomorrow night. There are two obvious problems with this strategy, though: (a) When it comes to wallowing around in the mud, Gingrich is King Hog, while Romney isn’t even a pig farmer in waders – he’s the CEO of the agribusiness conglomerate that owns the place, worried about getting any flecks of dirt on his starched white shirt; and (b) Gingrich’s rise represents as much as anything a rejection of Romney, his theme-less pudding of a campaign, and the Establishment support of it. At Romney’s final rally in Charleston on Friday… he ended his speech by declaiming, “I love this land, I love its Constitution, I revere its founders, I will get America back to work, and I’ll make sure that we remain the shining city on the hill.” It would be hard to conjure a stanza less suited to rousing the hot-eyed Republican base of 2012 than that.
But there is that other factor:
If Gingrich wins Florida, the Republican Establishment is going to have a meltdown that makes Three Mile Island look like a marshmallow roast. Why? Because the Establishment will be staring down the barrel of two utterly unpalatable choices. On the one hand, Gingrich’s national favorable-unfavorable ratings of 26.5 and 58.6 percent, respectively, make him not just unelectable against Obama – but also mean that he would likely be a ten-ton millstone around the necks of down-ballot Republican candidates across the country. And on the other, Romney will have shown in two successive contests – one in a bellwether Republican state, the other in a key swing state – an inability to beat his deeply unpopular rival.
If this scenario unfolds, the sound of GOP grandees whispering calls for a white knight, be it Indiana governor Mitch Daniels (who, conveniently, is delivering the Republican response to Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night) or Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan or even Jeb Bush, will be deafening.
Yes, what Sullivan said makes sense:
This is the Republican crack-up people have been predicting for years. Gingrich is on a roll. I think he can win this – and then lose this in a way that could change America history.
Well, he may be a bellwether of something, but a friend sent this along in an email:
This Newt guy is starting to really get on my nerves. I can’t decide whether or not I want to see him as the nominee, even if I think he’s easier to beat than Romney, since after hearing his acceptance speech, I think he’d be a formidable debater who could possibly embarrass Obama, and then there is that chance that he’d become president. Shit. Oh, please, God, no! Please let somebody trounce Newt in Florida!
That may not happen. Things are changing, and not for the better. And maybe the playoffs are over.