Many Americans today are angry, frustrated, and panicked about the future. They are also hungry for a strong leader. This may not be the time for cool, aloof and cerebral, or “no drama Obama.” This could change in the period ahead, but everyone reacts to the voter dynamics of the primary at hand, not what they hope will transpire in the future. That makes for interesting punditry but it has nothing to do with the dynamic within certain segments of the electorate.
In an era of growing income inequality, economic injustice, and high unemployment, demagoguery flourishes. Enter Newt Gingrich. He excites the passions of conservatives, some independents and many others that may not fit into neat little categories. Newt looks strong and projects a shrewd, vital and combative image; an image voters do not see in President Obama. On this latter point, 18-year-old Henry Mullin, a freshman at the college of Charleston says, “You have to be tenacious and have bravado and be very aggressive to get things done as president.” You have to look strong!
Mullin and others like him made the difference in South Carolina. They are drawn to that scrappy, finger-in-your-face image of Gingrich. Their analysis of his candidacy may appear rudimentary but this is politics: image matters, something President Obama had to learn through bitter experience.
Newt Gingrich, unlike Mitt, has tapped into a rich vein of voter discontent that he adroitly manipulates. Romney, after three contests, is looking less and less like the dragon slayer. Gingrich does not have to have a national message at the moment. Moreover, he does not have to put forth a plan to address the real ills of our times. Newt merely has to tap into the fears of his audience, tell them they have a problem, who caused it, and if they elect him, he will fix it. Does this sound historically familiar?
The Republican campaign thus far is not about logic or reason. This is about human nature, capitalizing on fear and uncertainty. The president and his team, and their billion-dollar organization, should be prepared to present as passionate and detailed a defense of their vision for the future as the opposition is at demonizing what the president represents. Facts and truth are casualties to demagoguery. The Democrats are going to have to meet this enemy on his playing field.
An educated guess is that if the president cannot inspire the electorate this year, he could find it difficult to fend off a Gingrich.
The former speaker, meanwhile, will continue his inexorable march from one primary to the next while raising more cash and doubts about Romney. Romney took the long view, that of the inevitable nominee. Gingrich appears to want to survive from one debate to the next and test the breath and depth of his appeal to elements of the Republican base.
Between Romney and Gingrich, it is safe to assume the latter is more motivated. Gingrich wants to stick in the craw of the Republican Party establishment, his former colleagues in Congress, and signal to wavering Republicans he will not forget those who join him early. Each win or strong finish strengthens his bandwagon appeal.
If Gingrich the candidate suffers any malady, it is of excessive narcissism. Combine that with erudition, guile, and a go-for-broke campaign style, you have an unpredictable entity that excites the media, unnerves the GOP, and motivates his base. There is always the possibility that voters in other primary states may make the assumption he is the better choice to confront President Obama. All Newt has to do is win or place second to Romney in the Florida primary to initiate this thought process. Mitt has to win.
It would appear that the former House Speaker has more political lives than the GOP can kill. What happened to the early analyses concluding that the odds favored a center-right candidate against the president?
The androgynous Mitt Romney, the best hope of the 1 percent, is off script and foundering even though he is awash in campaign cash. Gingrich is surging in Florida and raising cash from one primary contest to the next. Meanwhile, President Obama is rolling out his first campaign ads. Could there be a more troubling scenario for Republicans as they head into their fourth contest of the season? The mood among the electorate in southern and some swing states is ugly and Newt has his finger on the pulse, his personal baggage notwithstanding.
The big question within the GOP establishment has to be, “How do we stop Newt?” 2016 hopeful and prominent Romney surrogate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says, “Newt Gingrich has been an embarrassment to the Republican Party who didn’t have the capacity or the background to serve as an effective president.” Any candidate but a Newt Gingrich might feel offended by that comment. Ann Coulter, another darling of the right, is equally harsh in her condemnation of Gingrich.
A corollary question to how do we stop Newt has to be, “Is Mitt up to the task to deliver a knockout blow to Gingrich in Florida and, later, to President Obama?” The first question appears easier because Gingrich will determine his own fate. He is his own worst enemy. An outrageous comment from the ever-confident egoist before the wrong audience in an important contest could derail or wound him making a full recovery improbable.
Romney, the GOP is discovering, has multiple fractures in his glass jaw. It is not just his Mormon faith that unnerves many in his party. He has been in campaign mode for five years yet was unprepared to answer forthrightly a question regarding the release of his taxes. It doesn’t get more politically basic than that. Also, he is not connecting with conservatives or with Christian evangelicals. Both are critical to securing his party’s nomination. His record with Bain Capital is under more intense scrutiny and he has had to offer uncomfortable, but corrective, details on his record as a job creator.
Should Newt Gingrich accomplish the improbable and win the Florida primary, it is back to the drawing boards for the GOP and the Romney campaign. Gingrich will expect a massive assault from Romney surrogates and negative campaign ads financed by super PACs supporting Romney.
The Democrats and the Obama campaign strategy will stress that this election is not a referendum on Obama’s record as president. The election, they will assert vigorously, is about a choice between two competing visions for the American future. The goal would be to scare the electorate into making a “rational choice” in November. It might work, but, if there is anything about the current campaign that is rational, someone should write about it.
For the heck of it, let’s hypothesize that Gingrich struggles through the next few primaries and ultimately captures the GOP nomination. The only remaining option to set him aside would be a brokered convention. My guess is, to salvage his wounded pride and intensely held belief that he could defeat President Obama in a head-to-head match-up, Gingrich would “blow up” the party in prime time. The fallout could be volcanic.
Here is why. Gingrich would have nothing to lose. If anything, he would earn pariah status in the GOP. Newt is 68-years-old, wealthy and could make a fortune on the lecture circuit. Also we could look forward to several more books.
It is unlikely that Gingrich would accept a cabinet post or becoming the Veep to a President Romney. The chemistry would be too toxic and Romney would spend too much time looking in his rear view mirror. This is Newt’s last shot just as it is for Romney. We live in volatile times and Newt is wired into that.
The campaign thus far represents the best of Kabuki Theater, but it brings the disaffected and the angry to the polls. It also brings those who relish the specter of a shoot-out between their “Great White Hope” and a black president whose defeat is the one thing that unites all Republicans today.
Newt Gingrich may miss the brass ring this time around but he will relish the campaign even if he leaves a fractured GOP in his wake. Look at the situation this way: this campaign is not about advancing the goals of the GOP. This is all about Newt Gingrich, and that makes him potentially a very formidable adversary to both Romney and Obama.