Sometimes it seems as if the Republicans are just trying to puzzle the rest of America – those of us who aren’t Republicans. Of course they would be quick to tell you those few among us who somehow and quite inexplicably aren’t Republicans aren’t Real Americans – and they ought to be ashamed of themselves. But they’re always saying that. Maybe it makes them feel good. Still it would be nice if they decided who they will run against Obama this year.
And that’s not going well, with the rest of us seeing them choosing one just-right masterful champion after another – Bachmann, Trump, Perry, Cain – who embodies and articulates their fervent beliefs and will take the fight to Obama and win big in November – and then discarding each as fatally flawed, or dumb as dirt, or just dull, or too eccentric even for their burn-the-house down tastes. Others just walked away – Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Chris Christie and others – because they couldn’t figure out a way to win the nomination and win against Obama. Satisfying the party and satisfying the nation may be mutually exclusive this year. Only a fool thinks that’s possible now.
And that left only four fools still standing – preprogrammed Mitt Romney, late of Bain Capital, the righteous and angry Newt Gingrich, who sneers and says he’s the smartest man in the room and all other mortals are fools, and the severe if not puritanical social conservative, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul being all loveable and eccentric. That’s it? That’s it, and after three primaries – Iowa then New Hampshire then South Carolina, and now heading into Florida – the righteous and angry Newt Gingrich is leading in all the polls. The rest of the nation loathes him (soaring sky-high unfavorable ratings in the polls, and favorable ratings about as low as they come) – but the Republican Party seems to like him a lot. And Kevin Drum explains that pretty well:
This is hardly the most important thing in the world, but I’ve heard an awful lot of people lately saying that Newt Gingrich’s recent success is due to the fact that no one is better than him at channeling the anger of the Republican base. There’s nothing really wrong with that formulation, but for the record, I don’t think anger is quite the emotion in play here. Rather, it’s fear and contempt. The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party fears that the America they love is being taken away from them, and they have almost unbounded contempt for President Obama, the taker-away-in-chief.
And who does fear and contempt better than Newt? No one. Those are the emotions he’s channeling, not just boring old anger.
So what we have then is the party of fear and contempt – powerful forces – and series of debates where he who best plays on fear and best expresses contempt is the sure winner. That seems about right, but that doesn’t explain the latest debate, summarized by CNN with this:
In a spirited Republican presidential debate, Mitt Romney went after his surging conservative rival Newt Gingrich over his record as U.S. House speaker in the 1990s and accused Gingrich of lobbying after getting out of government.
Gingrich angrily denied the lobbying accusation, accusing Romney of lying about the issue and seeming flustered by the persistent attack.
Pausing at one point to collect his thoughts, Gingrich said Romney had been “walking around this state saying things that aren’t true.”
Romney continued, though, later saying to Gingrich: “You could call it whatever you like, I call it influence peddling.”
So it seems that fear and contempt can only take you so far – sometimes you have to explain yourself, not everything else. And this was the first of two debates in Florida this week ahead of the January 31 primary there. This should be interesting:
Responding to the opening questions in the debate sponsored by NBC News, the National Journal and the Tampa Bay Times, Romney repeated attacks on Gingrich that he has stepped up since Gingrich’s victory in Saturday’s South Carolina primary and rise in the recent polls.
“Members of his own congressional team after four years of his leadership, they voted to replace him,” Romney said of Gingrich’s time as House speaker from 1995 to 99. “This was the first time in American history that a speaker of the House has resigned.”
Romney also said contracts from Gingrich’s work for federal mortgage insurer Freddie Mac showed that Gingrich was hired by the chief lobbyist for the group.
Gingrich was flustered and accused Romney of making false statements, but he declined to specify them. He just said such accusations made him sad, or were sad, or something – and he didn’t need to answer them. And Rick Santorum and Ron Paul just watched – although when the topic turned to foreign policy, Gingrich and Romney took the usual hardline stances, advocating a military response, like an all-out war against any Iranian effort to block the Strait of Hormuz. And Gingrich also supported everything short of a military invasion to overthrow the Cuban government. There is a large Cuban-American community in Florida, and they vote.
And there was the odd man out:
Paul, meanwhile, persisted in his policies to reduce U.S. military presence around the world, saying in response to Gingrich’s Cuba remarks that “the Cold War is over.”
Calling instead for opening relations with Cuba, he said: “It’s not 1962 anymore.”
“We don’t have to use force and intimidation,” Paul said to some applause from the debate audience.
That would be “some applause” of course – in other words, not much. These are Republicans after all.
But this was after a day of sniping:
Before Monday’s Florida debate, Romney ramped up his criticism of Gingrich, labeling him a Washington insider lobbyist, questioning his leadership, and demanding that he release records tied to both a previous ethics investigation and work done for housing giant Freddie Mac.
Romney also demanded Gingrich return roughly $1.6 million earned from a contract with Freddie Mac, and ridiculed Gingrich’s insistence that the work amounted to little more than “strategic” advice, as opposed to lobbying.
Earlier in the day, Gingrich said he had asked his former company, the Center for Health Transformation, to release the details of its consulting contract with Freddie Mac.
But now they can’t find it, of course – or it will turn up. But there’s this:
For his part, Gingrich on Sunday dismissed Romney’s continuing critique of Gingrich’s previous ethics controversy. The former speaker characterized a $300,000 penalty leveled by the House Ethics Committee in the late 1990s as reimbursement for the cost of the investigation.
He also claimed that he persuaded fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives to vote “yes” on the ethics charges against him in order to put a swift end to the proceedings.
You see it wasn’t a fine, and he TOLD them to convict him of ethics charges, to get it over with, for the good of the party. But CNN, not being Fox News, checks the facts:
According to the nonpartisan fact check group PolitiFact, Gingrich was reprimanded by the House and ordered to pay the $300,000 penalty in 1997 for violating an ethics rule. It noted that the penalty was considered reimbursement for the investigation.
The violation originated in a course Gingrich taught at Kennesaw State College, which organizers claimed qualified for tax-exempt status, PolitiFact reported. The House Ethics Committee ultimately concluded the course was run to “help in achieving a partisan, political goal,” making it ineligible for tax exemption, according to PolitiFact.
Central to the 1997 investigation was a letter submitted by Gingrich’s lawyers, which the ethics panel deemed inaccurate. Gingrich conceded Sunday the letter was a mistake.
He lied to the ethics panel in that letter, and he was running a scam, and they caught him, and he had to pay what actually was a big fine, and he resigned as Speaker and left congress – but he says that was no big deal – it’s more important that we be very afraid, and have seething contempt for this Obama guy. That’s his story and he’s sticking to it.
And in his running commentary on the debate, when it came to the lobbying charge, Andrew Sullivan notes this:
I thought Romney won the confrontation. Gingrich was always on the defensive, and the argument that working for Freddie Mac had nothing to do with lobbying or influence peddling is unpersuasive on its face.
There was a moment in that exchange when Gingrich simply went silent. That doesn’t happen very often. It felt as if the demagogue had been exposed and was actually somewhat afraid. But it’s a weird dynamic on that stage. I can’t quite grasp it yet.
But Sullivan was pleased with the NBC moderator, Brian Williams – “He’s the first moderator to ask why the right response to the Wall Street crash is less regulation.” The answers weren’t very good, but the question was. And Williams may have set up Rick Santorum:
Williams gives Santorum his wet dream of starting a war on Iran. Santorum again equates the Shiite theocracy with the radical, stateless Sunni al Qaeda. How many Americans have been murdered by Iran’s regime in the US? Does he conflate all Muslims abroad?
Actually the whole debate was strange, as there was very a small and very quiet audience, and one of Sullivan’s readers offers this:
Newt is neutered without a crowd hungry for applause lines and visceral overstatement. Romney, in contrast, is clearly comfortable with the more formal flavor. And Paul is almost serene as Santorum fades into his own podium. A weird dynamic, indeed…
Gingrich cannot perform outside of high drama. He plays one note, but it can only be played under a specific media-centric form of duress.
Sullivan – “There is a method to Williams’ dullness.”
And as for Gingrich’s long pause, another of Sullivan’s readers offers this:
That was a somewhat strange and long stretch of silence from Newt, but to me it didn’t feel like he was afraid but pausing to let his first instinctive impulse – exploding in a red fury – pass. I thought he was, for maybe the very first time in his professional life, remembering and acting upon somebody else’s advice to stay calm.
Sullivan – “But when there is not a demos, there can be no demagogue.” (There are benefits to a classical education.)
And it seems another of Sullivan’s readers was actually listening to Ron Paul:
I used to think that Ron Paul’s analogies regarding how “we” would feel if “they” did that to us were clichéd and obvious, but they have really grown on me. His analogy regarding the Gulf of Mexico really opened my eyes. If someone set up a blockade in the Gulf, we would consider it an act of war and obliterate it immediately. The only reason we think that we can set up a blockade in foreign waters and say it is not an act of war is because the offended country wouldn’t be stupid enough to retaliate against a military superpower. It’s like the bully politely asking for the nerd’s lunch money: the only reason the transaction takes place without a fight is because the nerd is smart enough to realize if he doesn’t comply he will end up with a broken nose. But that doesn’t mean the bully is practicing peaceful diplomacy.
Ron Paul isn’t a very good Republican. But Sullivan is more concerned with tax policy:
So Gingrich says that the Bush tax cuts helped the economy not to go under after 9/11. Does that mean that the Obama tax cuts helped the economy not to enter a Second Great Depression? Or does Keynesian economics only work under Republicans?
But notice how that question – why didn’t the Bush tax cuts work? – should have prompted an anti-media tirade from Newt. It was the perfect set-up, and also the kind of valid point that usually makes Newt’s head explode. But he just went along with it. He seems completely robbed of that South Carolina fire. Is it the audience? Or is he just exhausted? I wouldn’t blame him. But Romney has, in my view, done well in this debate so far. Because he has never really been challenged…
And that leads to this summary:
What a different Gingrich tonight: eager to thank and support his rivals; humble with respect to the huge challenges ahead. He has decided to cut the fireworks to foil his critics. And I presume his Super PAC will meanwhile open up various cans of whup-ass on Romney. So this is Newt on his best behavior – even when Romney called him a “disgrace” three times.
Maybe Gingrich is trying to reassure the establishment that he is not the constant bomb-thrower and surprise agent. Maybe he realizes he needs to look more presidential. My own take is that this gambit cannot work for Newt. He is not a serene statesman. He’s a ferocious demagogue. That’s all he knows. I don’t find the new Newt very appealing. But maybe tactically, it makes sense.
As for Romney, he was back on form…
But Sullivan wasn’t impressed:
How does having a family advance conservatism as an ideology? Or working for a private equity company? Just when you think Romney has rallied, he gives you a lame-ass answer like that one. And ends it with a smirk…
And we still have the same Republican puzzle. Which of these four runs against Obama, with a plausible chance of winning? David Frum says it had better not be Gingrich:
It’s striking that almost none of Gingrich’s former colleagues in the House has endorsed him for president. Striking that nobody associated with a past Republican presidential association has done so. He is a candidate of talk-show hosts and local activists – and of course of Rick Perry and Sarah Palin – but not of those who know him best and have worked with him most closely. Gingrich may raise more money after his South Carolina win. But prediction: Romney will raise even more, among the great national network of Republicans who recognize that to nominate Gingrich is to commit party suicide.
And Steve Schmidt agrees:
If Newt Gingrich is able to win the Florida primary, you will see a panic and a meltdown of the Republican establishment that is beyond my ability to articulate in the English language. People will go crazy… There are 33 House Republicans in districts that Barack Obama won. What is the impact in terms of Republicans being able to keep the House of Representatives in majority control if Newt Gingrich was the nominee of the party? What is the impact in the United State Senate races where Republicans have a great chance of taking majority control of the United States Senate? With Newt Gingrich as the nominee of the party, that is, perhaps, all up in the air.
Erick Erickson adds this:
The Republican Establishment fears Gingrich will cause them to lose the House and not get the Senate. Put another way, the current Republican leadership fears that the man who helped the GOP take back the House for the first time in 40 years and his allies in the Tea Party who helped take back the House in 2010 will cause the GOP to now lose.
And also on the right, Tim Carney says this could be the end for the Republican Establishment:
Given his record, it may be implausible that Gingrich can pose as anti-establishment. But the establishment is certainly anti-Newt. And for South Carolina’s voters, that was an endorsement enough.
And maybe he’s right, as Sullivan argued earlier in the day that there is no Republican Establishment:
I’m not sure what this phrase means or what it represents any more – the Chamber of Commerce? John Boehner? The Bush family? But the concept of a responsible, sane, pragmatic party leadership able to corral or coax or manage a party’s base is, it seems to me, a preposterous fiction on its face, as we are seeing.
The Republican Establishment is Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Karl Rove, and their manifold products, from Hannity to Levin. They rule on the talk radio airwaves and on the GOP’s own “news” channel, Fox. They have never quite reconciled themselves to Romney since he represents a gray blur in a stark Manichean universe they have created for more than a decade now. In this universe, there is only black and white. There is only them and us. Anyone who diverges an iota from this schematic is speaking without a microphone in front of a revving airplane engine.
And Sullivan harks back to Gingrich’s victory speech in South Carolina:
It was completely, fundamentally, organizationally Manichean, if you’ll pardon the expression. He limned a familiar battle between independence and dependence, pay-checks vs. food stamps, America vs. “Europe”, the American people vs. elites “forcing people” for 35 years not to be American, the traditional America vs. the “secular, European style socialist bureaucratic system.” There is no gray here. There is no nuance. And there is the imputation to the other side of malign motives, secret agendas and foreignness that has been Gingrich’s hallmark since the very beginning, when he assaulted the traditions of the Congress until that institution eventually had to repel him.
Listen to Limbaugh, the GOP’s chief spokesman. How does a Romney channel that level of viciousness and rage? Listen to Hannity. How does a smooth manager reach a base that wants the same Manichean approach to foreign policy, in which there is only one ally (Israel) and enemies everywhere else (Europe, China, the Arab world, Russia)? Read Mark Levin. There are only two options now on the table, as he sees it: freedom or slavery. And a vote for Obama is a vote for slavery.
So Drum was right about fear and contempt, but Sullivan says that’s the Republican Party now:
It purges dissidents, it vaunts total loyalty, it polices discourse for any deviation. If you really have a cogent argument, you find yourself fired – like Bruce Bartlett or David Frum – or subject to blacklists, like me and Fox. You can find Steve Schmidt lamenting Gingrich for very good reasons, and then you realize that it was Schmidt – a moderate, sane, level-headed professional – who helped pick Sarah Palin for the vice-presidential nomination. Because he correctly realized that she would actually add base votes and prevent a total Obama tsunami. In the end, he knew what he had to do. In the end, the “establishment” knows the party they have created.
This now is the party of Palin and Gingrich, animated primarily by hatred of elites, angry at the new shape and color of America, befuddled by a suddenly more complicated world, and dedicated primarily to emotion rather than reason. That party is simply not one that can rally behind a Mitt Romney. He too knows what he has to say – hence his ludicrous invocation of Obama as some kind of alien being. But it doesn’t work. He believes it – since he seems capable of genuinely believing in anything that will win him votes and power. But he doesn’t have the rage to make it work. And that rage cannot be downward, as Romney’s often is – toward hecklers or interviewers. It has to be upward – at vague, treasonous elites. It has to have that Poujadist touch, that soupcon of contempt, that sends shivers up the legs of the Republican faithful, reared on Limbaugh, propagandized by Fox, and coated with a shallow knowledge of a largely fictionalized past.
This is Gingrich’s party; and Ailes’; and Rove’s. They made it; and it is only fitting it now be put on the table, for full inspection. Better sooner than later.
Yes, you do need to know about Pierre Poujade to get all of Sullivan’s rant – or not. But you do see that the party has no use for Romney. In fact, in the American Conservative, Noah Millman argues that Romney, to these folks, seems like a manager rather than a leader:
To put it very crudely, he just doesn’t seem like an alpha male. Gingrich, by contrast, is a walking catalog of everything that is wrong with alpha-maleness. But for better or worse, Americans want to believe that their President is a leader, captain of his own ship, commander of his own destiny. Romney is an organization man. Having the organization come in and try to muscle him to the top will only provoke a greater rebellion, which in turn will damage the organization more than it will help Romney.
So this Republican puzzle won’t be solved – or cannot be solved. Maybe they should just nominate Obama and be done with it. That would save everyone a lot of needless trouble.