The Gingrich Fantasy

Our conservative readers (and yes, there are some) might be interested to know how liberals view the rise of Newt Gingrich to a clear lead in the race for president, and the answer is, we're gobsmacked. We just can't believe the Republican Party would be foolish enough to nominate a man who has so many weaknesses and is so plainly (from our perspective, anyway) repellent. We're not at all surprised to see the GOP establishment freaking out over the prospect of a Gingrich nomination (witness George Will employing every florid turn of phrase he can come up with to condemn Gingrich: "There is almost artistic vulgarity in Gingrich’s unrepented role as a hired larynx ... His Olympian sense of exemption from standards and logic ..."). The fact that the average Republican voter now seems to think that nominating Newt will work out well for them just makes no sense.

Someone recently said that Republican voters are acting like they're auditioning not presidents but Fox News personalities. Primary voters want someone to channel their rage, their resentment, and their hatred of Obama in the same way that Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity do. Mitt Romney doesn't make the kind of television personality that the other candidates do. The key to delivering the contempt over the airwaves is that you have to believe it, and while Mitt is happy to serve up the red meat, it's pretty clear he doesn't actually believe it but is giving his audience what he thinks they want to hear. All the other not-Mitts, for all their modest talents, clearly believe it. And yesterday, conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat made what I think is an important observation about the latest not-Mitt, Newt Gingrich:

IN 2004, the Democrats were furious at what they considered the fraud to end all frauds: the selling of George W. Bush as a decisive military leader and all-American tough guy. So they nominated John Kerry for the presidency, hoping that having a real combat veteran as their standard-bearer — a bemedaled war hero, no less, who began his convention speech by announcing that he was “reporting for duty” — would finally expose Bush as the tinhorn chicken hawk that liberals believed him to be.

The conventional wisdom holds that Mitt Romney is the John Kerry figure (a Northeastern flip-flopper with good hair) in the 2012 Republican primary field, with his various challengers auditioning to play the more exciting role of Howard Dean. But Newt Gingrich’s recent rise in the polls is being sustained, in part, by a right-wing version of exactly the impulse that led Democrats to nominate Kerry: a desperate desire to somehow beat Barack Obama at his own game, and to explode what conservatives consider the great fantasy of the 2008 campaign — the conceit that Obama possessed an unmatched brilliance and an unprecedented eloquence.

If you aren't tuned in to conservative media—the radio shows, television shows, and websites where the base Republican voter lives—you might not be aware of how powerful this impulse is. Many conservatives are positively obsessed with the idea that contrary to all appearances, Barack Obama is kind of a dolt. There's lots of talk about how Obama only got into Columbia and Harvard Law School because of affirmative action (you may remember noted highbrow intellectual Donald Trump making this claim), and endless jokes about Obama overusing teleprompters, with the idea that he's too dumb to give an extemporaneous speech sometimes implied and sometimes stated outright.

So many conservatives have a fantasy that if they nominate their own smart guy, he'll show the world that they've been right all along, that Obama is really a numbskull whom people only believe is smart because the liberal media sing his praises. Gingrich himself is well aware of this, which is why he's happy to play into it by challenging Obama to a zillion debates and saying, to the laughs and cheers of the crowd, "If he wants to use a teleprompter, that would be fine with me."

Newt may be, as Paul Krugman recently said, a stupid person's idea of what a smart person sounds like. But to many Republicans, Newt offers the opportunity to not just defeat Obama but to expose him as a fraud. In truth, he's probably capable of doing neither. But don't tell his new supporters that. In Newt they are beginning to see the possibility of Obama being humiliated. And that could be a fantasy too delicious to resist.