Thursday, February 2, 2012
What a satisfying, if self-indulgent, pleasure it has lately become to read the conservative press. As Newt Gingrich whacks Mitt Romney with brickbats furnished by Occupy Wall Street, the voices of the Republican establishment are rising in anger and consternation. In some quarters, a certain delicacy on the subject of Gingrich persists, for fear perhaps of offending a man who stands a slim chance of fulfilling his most grandiose dream, and also of inflaming the Tea Party base that thrills to his racially inflected rhetoric.
What’s striking, at this stage in the GOP primary, is that most serious discussions among conservatives appear to revolve around one question: Which of these men would be worse at the top of the party’s 2012 ticket? The erratic, philandering, thrice-married megalomaniac, a demonstrable hypocrite on nearly every score, who compared his own failure to get on the ballot in Virginia to Pearl Harbor and announced that he wants to colonize the moon; or the tin-eared, blow-dried candidate who seems unhinged when a hair falls out of place, a flip-flopper on hot-button issues from abortion to Obamacare, with his Swiss bank accounts, Cayman Islands tax shelters and discount 13.9-percent tax rate?
The establishment answer is, of course, the former: Newt would be much worse. Haunted by memories of Gingrich’s role in the 1998 midterm debacle, Republican strategists too nervous to be named say they would regard a Newt nomination not only as a blown opportunity to dethrone Obama, but as a looming “down ballot disaster” for the party. But many rank-and-file Republicans either don’t agree or don’t care, with the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finding GOP voters nationwide preferring Gingrich to Romney by a nine-point margin (37-28 percent, respectively). As McCain strategist Steve Schmidt remarked on MSNBC, “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.”
“MITT ROMNEY – HE’S NOT AS UNETHICAL AS THE OTHER GUY.”
Wherever they may stand on the Newt-Mitt divide, most conservative commentators seem to wish that there were some way out of their lesser-evil dilemma. They cast longing glances at Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie. Rather than strain to go positive for their chosen one, they go negative on the other one. As a Gingrich sympathizer put it in National Review Online, describing his Romney-supporting foes, “Their basic pitch is: Mitt Romney – he’s not as crazy, irresponsible or unethical as the other guy.”
All of this naturally delights the Democrats, who are gleeful that Gingrich is relying on sources like ThinkProgress to saddle Romney with the mantle of the One Percent Candidate, and who salivate at the thought that it might actually work. Gingrich, whose embarrassing open-book past renders opposition research nearly unnecessary, and whose base of support lies far to the right of the mainstream, might actually be the Republican nominee.
Progressive pundit Robert Reich warns that they should be careful what they hope for. “No responsible Democrat should be pleased at the prospect that Gingrich could get the GOP nomination. The future of America is too important to accept even a small risk of a Gingrich presidency,” which he puts at 10 percent, versus 49 percent for Romney.
Well, maybe. It’s true, President Gingrich is a scary thought. At a time when one in seven Americans, and one in four children, depend on food stamps to stave off hunger, an election season flavored with Newt’s bashing of the “food-stamp President” is not something to savor, whatever the outcome might be.
BETSY REED is executive editor of The Nation magazine.