Mitt Romney continues to pull the same 25 to 30 percent of the GOP base that he’s had all along. The remainder of his party, reluctant to settle for the man from Massachusetts, continues to look around for a champion who can rescue them from his clutches.
For the moment, that champion happens to be Herman Cain, but it’s impossible to believe that can last. Critical as I’ve been of them, I still have more faith in the GOP electorate than to believe they’re serious about making Cain their nominee. But having run through Bachmann and Perry, where else can they turn?
Well, there’s that portly gentleman with the gray hair over there, the one tugging on his ear and, frankly, trying to look disinterested. The name is Newt Gingrich, I believe.
Listening to Newt these days, it’s pretty clear that he thinks the race may finally be turning in his direction. He looks at Romney and sees a man with a “Nelson Rockefeller problem,” as Gingrich calls it, noting that “there is a natural ceiling” for such candidates in the Republican Party.
(Nelson Rockefeller, for those too young to know, was a moderate Republican and a successful governor of New York who in 1960, 1964 and 1968 lost the GOP nomination to more conservative opponents. Think of him as the original RINO.)
Gingrich also looks around at his fellow candidates and sees rank amateurs, all of whom have had their shot at being the anti-Mitt and have fallen short. Other than Romney, Gingrich is the only major player on the debate stage who actually knows public policy, and it shows.
“At some point I think it’s going to come down to Romney and me,” Gingrich said this week. “Once we get down to a two-person debate, then I’m reasonably confident I will win.”
The former speaker is also positioning himself as the sole grownup in the party, the only one with the self-control needed to be successful next summer and fall. Watching Romney and Rick Perry squabble at the last debate, Gingrich said, made him feel like “I was the recess monitor on the playground, watching these two kids.” He even talks in regretful tones about the decline of mutual respect in politics, noting that “policy dialogue, handled with civility, is exactly what politics should be.”
Of course, it’s impossible to hear pleas for civil dialogue from a man with Newt’s history without giggling a bit. And in his heart he really hasn’t changed much, as evidenced by his recent suggestion that U.S. Rep. Barney Frank and Sen. Chris Dodd ought to be tossed into prison. Earlier this year, Gingrich also accused House Republicans of trying to impose “radical … right-wing social engineering” and claimed that President Obama is governed by a “Kenyan, anti-colonialist” mindset. The hyena hasn’t changed his spots, and everyone knows it.
And that’s just the problem. Anybody else with Gingrich’s resume, knowledge and rhetorical skills would indeed be well positioned to become Romney’s main challenger at this point. But Gingrich isn’t just anybody else. He travels with more baggage than a 100-piece marching band.
To today’s voters, he also comes across as a politician from another century, when men named Clinton and Reagan and Dole walked the corridors of Washington. And he doesn’t seem to get that. In fact, if Romney gives off echoes of Nelson Rockefeller, Gingrich has at least a touch of Norma Desmond about him. Like that once-famous actress in the classic “Sunset Boulevard,” he’s ready for his closeup and certain that he’s going to be just as big as he ever was.
– Jay Bookman