Newt Gingrich won a decisive victory in South Carolina tonight, defeating Mitt Romney by more than 10 points, after having been down by 10 points just a week ago.
How do we account for this remarkable turnaround? Obviously, the debates last week were a crucial factor. But why did he resonate so well with strong conservatives in these debates, after having been left virtually for dead immediately following New Hampshire?
It probably was not because of his policy proposals. Consider this Gingrich suggestion from the Myrtle Beach debate, which drew raucous applause.
Joe Klein reminded me that this started with an article he wrote 20 years ago. New York City pays their janitors an absurd amount of money because of the union. You could take one janitor and hire 30-some kids to work in the school for the price of one janitor, and those 30 kids would be a lot less likely to drop out. They would actually have money in their pocket. They’d learn to show up for work. They could do light janitorial duty. They could work in the cafeteria. They could work in the front office. They could work in the library. They’d be getting money, which is a good thing if you’re poor. Only the elites despise earning money.
There are two ways to look at this proposal. Perhaps Gingrich is offering a federal government takeover of New York sanitation workers, so as to generate something close to full employment. From that perspective, this is certainly the most liberal policy proposal ever to be offered at a Republican debate! Alternatively, perhaps Gingrich was offering a suggestion to Mayor Michael Bloomberg on how to get more kids to work. From that perspective, it is a non sequitur, at least in the context of a presidential debate, as Gingrich does not need to be president to make the recommendation.
So what on earth was this conservative crowd applauding? It was that last sentence – “Only the elites despise earning money” – which captures the essence of this most recent Gingrich boomlet.
Conservatives are very frustrated, and rightfully so. Their feeling is that they play by the rules – they work hard, pay their taxes, raise their kids right – but what do they get for it? Their values are mocked on television and the movies, the media castigates them as a bunch of extremists, they pay taxes while half of the country does not, and the Obama administration took to demagoguing them virtually from day one of his tenure. I know of what I speak – a few months back I was driving down the road and saw a sign in front of a business lamenting, “Where is the America I grew up in?” I nodded my head in approval.
Enter Newt Gingrich, the person on the debate stage who finally speaks truth to power. 'Not so fast, John King!' 'Hold it just a damned minute, Diane Sawyer!' 'How dare you talk to me like that, Brian Williams!' These are the sorts of thoughts that millions of conservatives have every week. And now here is Newt Gingrich actually saying it right to them. Never mind the fact that he is expressing indignation at liberals while sometimes offering not-so-conservative policies, or using it as a form of misdirection to turn attention away from his own questionable deeds. Conservatives everywhere love to hear somebody finally stick it to the elites.
This explains why they are excited about the prospect of an Obama-Gingrich debate. They love the thought of someone finally standing in front of Obama and saying, “How dare you, sir!”
The problem with Gingrich, of course, is that he comes with a cargo ship full of baggage – ideological, financial, and personal. Gingrich has made a career since leaving the House as a well-connected insider; he has bona fide ethical scandals on his resume. His personal life is a total mess, and he has turned off the broad middle of the country for the last 15 years. And on top of that, it’s doubtful that all of this outrage is genuine. Consider, for instance, Gingrich warmly complimenting John King after the CNN debate this week. How do we square that with King having done something so “close to despicable” just 120 minutes earlier?
So, ironically enough, while Gingrich could well be the most suited of the three remaining major candidates to representing conservative frustration at the president in the fall, he could well be the least suited to pulling off an actual win in November.
There are three major candidates in the race, Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum. All of them profess to be conservatives. Romney and Santorum make credible claims that they can sell conservatism to the middle, but they do not stir the hearts of the faithful nearly as much. Gingrich stirs the faithful, for sure, but moderates have been expressing discontent with him since virtually the first moment he stepped on to the stage in the early 1990s.
No doubt conservatives are frustrated, but is that enough to defeat Obama in 10 months?