What is it about this primary season that causes Republicans to go around the bend? The current beneficiary of the “anyone but Romney” mania is Newt Gingrich, who may actually win the South Carolina primary tomorrow. I find that astonishing. Gingrich has been mostly out of the public view since he retired from Congress 13 years ago. The most surprising feature of this endlessly surprising political year is that, at age 68, Gingrich has made a comeback.
It is hard to make clear-cut statements about the mercurial and often contradictory Gingrich, but one thing we can say with absolute certainty: he will never be President of the United States. Put aside the fact that he lasted only four years as Speaker of the House before resigning in disgrace, leaving Congress with an approval rating around 15%. Forget that he was the father of the earmark. Never mind his notorious lack of self-control and his attacks on free enterprise. Those are all worthy topics for another day, but for the moment let’s just focus on the allegations by Newt’s second ex-wife that hit the press this week. Apart from all the other good reasons why Gingrich will never be President, Marianne Gingrich’s sensational allegations snuffed out any possible hope that Newt can beat Barack Obama in 2012.
I say this even though 1) I personally don’t care what Gingrich did in his personal life ten or twenty years ago, and 2) I don’t assume that everything his ex-wife said is true. But try to conceive of a presidential race in which the ex-wife of one of the candidates is going around giving interviews of the sort that Marianne Gingrich unleashed on ABC. It would be a train wreck. Have times changed? Sure. Have they changed that much? Don’t kid yourself.
Newt makes matters worse by trying to have it both ways. He won’t discuss Marianne’s claims; instead, in last night’s debate he lashed out at the media for publicizing them and at John King for asking about them. The audience of rabid Republicans ate it up. But at the same time, Gingrich implicitly acknowledged how devastating his ex-wife’s stories are by asserting that they are “false.” By calling her a liar, he put her allegations into play. Which claims, exactly, are false? Presumably not everything she said in the ABC interview; then, what? Anyone who seriously thinks that Gingrich can run against President Obama in the fall without both 1) being dogged by such questions, and 2) being turned into a laughingstock, is, in my opinion, delusional.
Barack Obama is a terrible president and an unpopular one. He is ripe for defeat in November, but not by Newt Gingrich. It is painful to contemplate the extent of the GOP wipeout that would follow a Gingrich nomination. Would Newt carry a state? Wyoming, maybe? South Carolina? The Republican Party could kiss its hopes of retaking the Senate goodbye, and likely would lose control over the House, giving Obama carte blanche to devastate the country for another four years.
The Newt mania is driven by his high-temperature stage persona and the ongoing “anyone but Romney” sentiment among some conservatives. I find the latter perspective mystifying. It would make much more sense to say “anyone but Gingrich,” or “anyone but Santorum,” or “anyone but Paul.” Out of this group, if there is anyone who ought to be broadly acceptable to conservatives, it is Romney. Certainly not Gingrich, with his earmarks, his disfavor with the conservatives he led in the House in the 1990s, his career as a lobbyist, his support for Medicare Part D, his embrace of global warming dogma, and his attacks on private equity and even free enterprise itself. Republicans have flirted with a number of potentially bad choices this election season, but voting for Gingrich would be the worst of them.