By Luke Brinker
Pundits who look at the 2012 Republican presidential nomination contest as a horse race started dubbing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich the new frontrunner this week. There’s no shortage of data points to buttress this narrative. RealClearPolitics’s poll of polls has Gingrich leading Mitt Romney by 6.2 points nationally. In Iowa, which holds its caucuses a month from tomorrow, Gingrich boasts a double-digit polling lead. And Mitt Romney’s New Hampshire firewall is suddenly looking a lot less secure. On Sunday, an influential conservative newspaper, the New Hampshire Union-Leader, endorsed Gingrich in a front-page editorial. A post-Union Leader endorsement poll by Rasmussen Reports still put Romney on top, but his lead over Gingrich was 34 percent to 24 percent, while Rasmussen’s previous poll in the state found Romney in first with 41 percent, and Herman Cain at a distant second with 17 percent. As the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza points out, it’s possible that Gingrich’s boomlet came at just the right time, with the earliest contests rapidly approaching. But Cillizza still dubs Romney the most likely GOP nominee – and he’s right.
If conservatives loathe Mitt Romney for his history of apostasy on abortion, climate change, gay rights, health care, and Reaganomics, it’s unclear why Gingrich will have any staying power upon further scrutiny. He dubbed Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan “right-wing social engineering.” He appeared in a climate change ad with San Francisco she-devil Nancy Pelosi. He backed an individual mandate as part of health care reform. He first ran for Congress as a liberal Rockefeller Republican in the 1970s, converting to conservatism just in time for the Reagan Revolution. So it’s unsurprising that conservatives from the rabble-rousing Ann Coulter to the cerebral George Will have been denouncing Gingrich of late.
Robert Schlesinger of US News and World Report provides a useful round-up of conservative criticisms of Gingrich, which touch upon his nearly $2 million payoff from mortgage giant Freddie Mac (Gingrich, mind you, infamously called for former Sen. Chris Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank to be thrown in jail for their ties with Fannie and Freddie), his troubled ethics history, and his unmitigated narcissism. In his latest Washington Post column (well worth reading in full), George Will lambastes both Romney and Gingrich, but his critique of Gingrich stings the most:
Gingrich, however, embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive. And there is his anti-conservative confidence that he has a comprehensive explanation of, and plan to perfect, everything.
Granted, his grandiose rhetoric celebrating his “transformative” self is entertaining: Recently he compared his revival of his campaign to Sam Walton’s and Ray Kroc’s creations of Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, two of America’s largest private-sector employers. There is almost artistic vulgarity in Gingrich’s unrepented role as a hired larynx for interests profiting from such government follies as ethanol and cheap mortgages. His Olympian sense of exemption from standards and logic allowed him, fresh from pocketing $1.6 million from Freddie Mac (for services as a “historian”), to say “if you want to put people in jail,” look at “the politicians who profited from” Washington’s environment.
His temperament — intellectual hubris distilled — makes him blown about by gusts of enthusiasm for intellectual fads, from 1990s futurism to “Lean Six Sigma” today. On election eve 1994, he said a disturbed South Carolina mother drowning her children “vividly reminds” Americans “how sick the society is getting, and how much we need to change things. . . . The only way you get change is to vote Republican.” Compare this grotesque opportunism — tarted up as sociology — with his devious recasting of it in a letter to the Nov. 18, 1994, Wall Street Journal. And remember his recent swoon over the theory that “Kenyan, anti-colonial”thinking explains Barack Obama.
Gingrich, who would have made a marvelous Marxist, believes everything is related to everything else and only he understands how. Conservatism, in contrast, is both cause and effect of modesty about understanding society’s complexities, controlling its trajectory and improving upon its spontaneous order. Conservatism inoculates against the hubristic volatility that Gingrich exemplifies and Genesis deplores: “Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel.”
Many commentators lament Gingrich’s lack of self-discipline, saying it’s a shame that such a brilliant “man of ideas” has proven so self-destructive throughout his career. But Will, a conservative intellectual if ever one existed, puts the lie to the Newt-as-Ideas-Man meme. Gingrich loves to use words like “deep,” “profound,” and “fundamental,” but his erratic, esoteric ideas call to mind Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s description of JFK’s book Why England Slept: “the deep thoughts of a bright sophomore” – and nothing more.
Will Will’s animus doom Gingrich? Not by itself. Will famously despised Sen. John McCain, but that didn’t stop McCain from winning the GOP nod in 2008. But as Robert Schlesinger’s (son of Arthur, as it happens) post shows, Will isn’t the only conservative with significant qualms about Gingrich. Indeed, the American Prospect provides this chart showing endorsement distributions among the leading 2012 candidates, underscoring the lack of depth to Gingrich’s support:
And even among the GOP rank-and-file, Gingrich’s support is remarkably superficial. Public Policy Polling found that in the pivotal early state of Florida (where Gingrich currently leads), only 36 percent of self-described Gingrich supporters were actually fully committed to voting for the former House Speaker.
To be sure, Gingrich stands a much greater chance than previous flavors of the month Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain of converting his surge into real votes, given the proximity to the first contests, but there’s plenty of time between now and January for Gingrich’s bubble to burst. In fact, Gingrich’s “frontrunner” status is, to borrow one of his favorite words, fundamentally precarious.