I usually struggle to give two of my least valuable craps about pundit commentary during election season. Most of it is for entertainment purposes only, and not even very successful to that end. What we have seen so far during the GOP primaries is neither surprising nor in need of extensive explanation. The most religiously conservative candidate did well in Iowa (as Mike Huckabee did, winning the state in 2008), the most moderate and libertarian-leaning candidates mopped up in New Hampshire (Romney wins, followed by Paul), and the most garishly unreconstructed racist won South Carolina. Oh, how exciting.
While these events don't lend themselves to deep analysis, two pieces of commentary regarding where the primaries go from here stood out. Common wisdom dictates that Gingrich and Santorum have had their 30 seconds in the limelight and now the upper hand will return to the candidate with the most money and people on the ground (Mittens). Joe Scarborough, who in fairness has rarely seen a hole in the ground that he could correctly distinguish from his own ass, disagrees. He believes that Romney is in real trouble:
"There’s no doubt about it," Scarborough agreed (ed: with Chuck Todd of Meet the Press). "The party base is revolting, but they are revolting against the Washington Republican establishment anointing Mitt Romney. Just like Herman Cain was not about Herman Cain. It was a rejection of Mitt Romney. Rick Perry, a rejection of Mitt Romney. Michele Bachmann, a rejection of Mitt Romney. Newt Gingrich wave one, a rejection of Mitt Romney. Now we have Newt Gingrich wave two, a rejection of Mitt Romney."
Hmm. Well the GOP base certainly is revolting, Joe! Oh, wait. You meant that as a verb. Fair enough. I'm not sure I buy his premise – after all, this is the kind of OMG THIS IS HUGE SO IMPORTANT!!! analysis that the networks trot out in the wake of every raindrop during election season. For a moment, let's suppose he's right. Why would that lead anyone to Newt Gingrich? Former House Republican Scarborough:
Mitt Romney could attack Newt for not being a conservative because Newt is not a conservative. Google it! We [Republicans] ran him out of Congress in 1998 because he sold us out on taxes, he sold us out on spending, he went to the floor and he sided with Democrats on his last speech, calling us the perfectionists caucus. He called us jihadists. He’s not a conservative, he’s an opportunist. But here is the problem: So is Mitt Romney.
Hmm. So it's the smarmy, polished opportunist versus the corpulent, hissing bridge troll opportunist. That seems like a pretty easy choice, right? I mean, you pick the one who can get elected, provided we can all agree that Ron Paul and Rick Santorum fail to reach the threshold of viable, Serious candidates.
Steve Schmidt (a relatively sane strategist responsible for the McCain campaign and now counted alongside Frum and Andy Sullivan as a heretic) reads from the Book of Revelations regarding Gingrich:
Look, I think, not only are we not moving towards a coalescing of support by the Republican establishment for Newt Gingrich, we're probably moving toward the declaration of war on Newt Gingrich by the Republican establishment. And 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.
People will go crazy and you will have this five week period until the Super Tuesday states which is going to be as unpredictable, tumultuous as any period in modern American politics. It will be a remarkable thing to watch should that happen in Florida.
HOLY SHIT THAT SOUNDS AWESOME! I am suddenly very excited for Team Gingrich to win the Florida primary.
As entertaining as this idea might be, it doesn't make a ton of sense. If Gingrich and Romney are both rank opportunists, what difference does it make to the GOP establishment? They're certainly not up in arms over Gingrich's "subtle racist appeals." That's part of the lingua franca of today's GOP. No, the issue boils down to a simple but important difference in personalities.
Newt Gingrich has high name recognition and staggeringly high negatives – sort of like Hillary Clinton in 2008, but much more despised. He is so repugnant as a person that he could actually accomplish the unlikely feat of dragging the entire party down with him in the general election. This is a guy who was run out of town on a rail in 1998 by his own party, and who in the interim seems to have devoted himself to getting meaner and eating pie thrice daily. The Establishment realizes that its field is crap this year and the chances of beating even a weakened Obama are 50-50 at their absolute best. Their odds of holding on to the House and taking the Senate, however, are good. Provided some venom-spewing Rancor beast doesn't come along and alienate every half-witted voter to the left of Joe McCarthy. The empty vessel with the polished smile and lots of money is a much better face to put forward in an election such as this one. It's plausible that Romney could win. It's plausible that if he falls short, he won't leave a smoldering pile of wreckage that was the Republican Party in his wake. Gingrich, on the other hand, would not only make his own kamikaze run at the White House but also bring the rest of the party with him against his will.
I'd be thrilled to see Schmidt's scenario play out – a Gingrich win in Florida followed by GOP: Beyond Thunderdome – if part of me wasn't terrified that enough of the American public is dumb enough to vote for Gingrich in the general election. Given his level of charisma, I think I'm willing to risk that.