The Clotted Candidate: Why Gingrich Has Bobbed to the Top

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Gingrich "cry baby" drawing and photo

Newt Gingrich cannot be destroyed, he can only be humiliated and defeated.

A candidate for President has a maximum level of support under optimal circumstances –an aspired level of  popularity that fuels their dreams.

If Rick Perry were merely a bad debater, rather than atrocious, we’d probably see his numbers up in the stratosphere.  If Michele Bachmann could have kept steering herself away from dipping her toes, feet, legs, and torso into the palpably insane, she might still be in the lead.  If Herman Cain were more experienced in politics and damage control (and, it looks increasingly likely, in self-control), he could shockingly have had a real shot.  If Mitt Romney had any political principles whatsoever and the chops to lie convincingly, to lie without betraying some inner sense of shame that he has bound and gagged in the basement of his conscience … but enough about that.  If Rick Santorum, if Ron Paul, if John Huntsman … no, really, let’s move on.

Every candidate has a maximum level of support under optimal circumstances — and then they also have a minimum level of support if things get really bad.  Let’s say that things do go bad — as their competitors are in the business of making happen.  How much can a given candidate be hurt by scandal, by stupidity, by ineffectuality, by incompetence, by hubris, by humiliation?

In the political game of chutes and ladders, the question is not merely how high a candidate can climb.   (In Romney’s case, it’s not far enough; in Paul’s case, not nearly far enough; in Huntsman’s case, no perceptible distance at all.)  The other question is how far down they can fall (and how quickly.)  In the cases of Bachmann and Perry, we’ve seen how far and how fast they could be taken down.  Cain is now hurtling down the chute with voters overall, while keeping his head above water with the Republican primary electorate for now.  (Maybe.  For a little while longer, most observers seem to believe.)  All three of them have shown that they cannot survive when wearing a varnish of tarnish.

How low is Romney’s downside?  I want you to take a moment and imagine a Mitt Romney sex scandal — nothing rococo, like autoerotic asphyxiation, but just a garden-variety one.  Say, he is caught in a broom closet at a campaign stop feeling up a perky 21-year-old volunteer.   What would happen then?

I think that he would literally be the first candidate in recorded history to actually break into negative numbers.  Those polled would respond to every question, from “what is your name?” to “what is your household income,” with “I WILL NOT VOTE FOR MITT ROMNEY,” even if the rest of the survey is actually about one’s favorite brands of paper towels.  Romney’s ability to survive the blunt impact of anything but a financial scandal — which would probably elicit yawns, because what do you expect of him? — is sightly less than that of a freshly-laid egg.

One Republican candidate is the exact opposite of Romney in this respect, and that is Newton Leroy Gingrich.  Newt’s sense of shame does not hover just outside of his facial expressions — as does Romney’s, which is evident when self-awareness causes him to adopt a rictus grin and to twitch whenever he says something during the primary campaign that he obviously cannot wait to be able to disavow.  (You can almost see him planning to send his legion of agents to erase his statements from all media archives and history books, lest history judge him harshly.  “I never said that!”)  No, no — Newt long ago fed his sense of shame to the alligators.  Newt — don’t you just want to call him by his first name, the lovable rogue? –is beyond shame.  That is the point of being Newt.

Newt — uniquely within the Republican field — is all ladder and no chute.  As the waters of popular support recede for his competitors, in relative terms he bobs towards the top, besting them so long as the Republican electorate is willing, as it must be, to grade on a curve.

You doubt this?  Put on your protective mental clothing and imagine a Newt Gingrich sex scandal: him groping the same young woman in the same broom closet as Romney.  Newt would calmly explain that he was examining her breasts for lumps, which he thought that he had perceived from afar.   He was trying to save her life! In condemning him, those opposed to him were simply showing their affiliation with the culture of death.  That and God has already forgiven him.

He’d say all this with a completely straight face and an absolute sense of conviction, his ardor being visible only in the increasingly foul and vicious Luntzian terms in which he would deride his critics.  And, with some — enough to win a nomination, although probably not an election — it would work.  (It has so far!)

Why is Newt Gingrich now hanging around with Herman Cain?  It’s for pretty much the same reason that a truly sadistic expert rock climber might enjoy clambering up an cliff next to a novice: he knows that he doesn’t have to do a thing, he can even give useful tips and aid, but eventually he is going to have the pleasure of watching his companion fall and be dashed upon the rocks.  Newt, you can see on his face, is just loving this.  He’s like Screwtape writing his letters.  (That, plus he wants Cain’s supporters when it happens.  And it will.)

Newt is impervious to scandal in the same way that you can’t clot blood that is already clotted, you can’t scar scar tissue, you can’t make the foulest offal more foul.  He has experienced and survived it all.  Shame, humiliation, failure — being outed as a liar, as a cheat, as a crook, as a knave.  When his campaign staff high-tailed it away from him earlier this year, he merely shrugged and ambled on.  People (me included) thought that this was because he was actually only interested in selling books.  Instead, it may be that he had accurately sized up the Republican field, and realized that, in the absence of cream, he could be the other proverbial substance that floats to the top.

And so he has — bobbing up to turd, um, third place so far, breaking out of the pack of also-rans that now includes Perry and Bachmann (and will soon, and as a Democrat I say this with a sigh, include Cain.)  He gives Republicans the one thing they really most desire at this point, aside from not being Romney: invulnerability.  He can stand up to ridicule, pressure, and scandal with a smile! (It’s actually more of a leering grin.)  They know that this is what’s coming and — as embarrassing as Newt would be in normal times, with his having physical appearance, morals and temperament of a Soviet-era Party Chief — in our times he may be just the man for the job.  Subtract the votes that Newt would lose in the event of a huge and horrible scandal and Newt’s support would be … pretty much where it is right now.  He can’t go lower than this, and as low as he is, he’s still liable to be higher than everyone else.

This aside, and here I will take off my partisan hat for a brief moment, nominating Newt would make for a really good race.  He’s completely unprincipled — I told you that the non-partisan moment would be brief — and one of the few candidates who could spout out the most bilious lies and calumnies with something better than absolute conviction: with utter nonchalance.  He doesn’t care whether it’s true or not, but only whether it’s effective, so why even bother pointing out that it’s not true?  (Don’t people understand, his visage conveys, that this is all a game?)

Newt is also more mature now.  Bill Clinton famously picked his pocket, after he became Speaker and the dust settled after the Oklahoma City bombing, by goosing him to make a pledge he couldn’t keep on campaign finance reform.  He had the temperamental fit over being insulted that led to the famous “Crybaby” cartoon, reproduced above.  Now he seems calmer.  Life has been as good to him as it could be to any politician who survived being run out of D.C. on a rail due to scandal.  He’s not just Gingrich, he’s rich rich!  His young cheatin’-partner wife, with the hairdo that can slice the lid off of an aluminum can, apparently adores him and works tirelessly as his partner in naked political avarice.  (Take note, Herman Cain.  This guy may beat you in part because he kept trading in his wives like Mercedes-Benzes.  What were you thinking?)  No scandal can touch him; he’s already so covered in scars that he has no pain receptors left.  He doesn’t need to rise to anyone’s bait.  He just gets to do what he most enjoys.

And he really is good at it, too.  He’s as smart as any of the Republican candidates — and as most of the famously brainy Democratic contenders too.  (He doesn’t believe stupid things because he’s crazy or dumb; he believes them because he wants to and he knows that it works.)  He will give President Obama the debates of his life; he’s the sort of opponent for which Obama may be least prepared.  Cain?  Obama beat him in 2004, when he was named Alan Keyes.  Romney?  As hapless as Boehner and McConnell, thanks.  Perry?  As gaffe-prone, poorly advised, and lacking in pertinent campaign experience as Hillary Clinton was.  Bachmann?  The President could mail in his candidacy.  But Gingrich — with the shape and stinger of a manatee-sized bumblebee — what would Obama do?

How do you prepare for someone who might literally fire at you from every direction, using any weapon ever imagined and several cooked up just for the occasion, whose entire strategy for victory is simply to ensure Fear, Uncertainty Doubt and sufficient Disillusionment with the whole process to make everyone want to stay home on Election Day?  I’m not sure that one can.  Clinton would destroy Gingrich; Biden could probably take him.  Obama?  I think he’d still win — a Gingrich presidency is still almost inconceivable (and yes I am aware of the resonance of that word) — but it would be a really uncomfortable ride, which would cheer up the Republicans.

Essentially one of two things would happen.  Either Gingrich’s lies and distortions would convince the public of crazy things and he’d win — and would probably be a better President than anyone except maybe Huntsman, because he doesn’t really believe much of what he says and could turn out to be Nixonian in the positive as well as the negative senses, open to reforms that make pragmatic sense — or Obama would win by educating the public.  Newt wants seven debates, or seventeen, or seventy?  I’ll go against the grain of every other political analyst in the world (and may actually call some dead ones out of their graves by saying this, but): Fine!  Let’s have one of those debates, every month, be about Obama’s health care reforms — and let it last for six hours, long enough for the media to fact check the candidates’ assertions before it’s over.  Let’s get the public, finally, to understand what is going on in the country and the world.  Let’s get them to pay attention when and where it matters.

Newt might end up as being the devil’s advocate in such an exercise, but this would be a useful role — serving a serious civic purpose.  Newt could be true to his (professed) beliefs and lose with — well, “dignity” is not quite the right word, but it would be some twisted analogue of “honor” — and retire as the satisfied and secure Goldwatery loser that McCain cannot stand being.  For Newt, it would be the capstone to a generally successful career — as well as his personal retirement policy.

The Republicans could do much worse than Newt.  Take pretty much any other viable option for the nomination, in fact, and they likely will.

(Copyright 2011 by the author.  Photos taken from Wikipedia.)


About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)