Note: This contains extensive material included in a blog post published Saturday. It is published here as the electronic version of today’s AJC column:
The conservative movement has made its sentiments clear: It does not want to marry the nice, safe boy across the street with the perfect hair and perfect manners. Against the pleas of its parents in Washington, it wants a bad boy, and that bad boy is named Newt Gingrich.
It’s hard to exaggerate the panic that a potential Gingrich nomination sets off among GOP leaders. Given what some of them are saying on the record and in public — words such as “unstable” and “unprincipled” – you can only imagine what they say in private. But in many ways, they have brought this upon themselves.
If you teach your followers that compromise equals defeat — if that all-or-nothing approach becomes central to your movement’s identity — how can you demand that they accept compromise incarnate in the person of Mitt Romney? Is that not admitting defeat on the most important decision that the party can make? Millions of Republicans clearly believe it is.
If you tell them that being Republican requires allegiance to every single tenet of Republican doctrine — George Will last week noted that the party is “more ideologically homogenous than ever in 156 years of competing for the presidency” — how can you sell them a candidate who is so transparently insincere in embracing that doctrine? (Gingrich is equally insincere; he’s just better at hiding it.)
And if you have nurtured your base on the red meat of anger and resentment, building an elaborate media infrastructure to generate fresh outrage to feed upon, you have prepared them to prefer a demagogic leader with a genius for that style of politics. With his intellectual veneer and flair for the outrageous, Gingrich doesn’t merely throw the crowd red meat; he throws them high-end Kobe beef, broiled to mouthwatering perfection, and they love him for it.
Meanwhile, Romney offers soy burgers. Go ahead, eat it. It’s good for you.
And this is the tough part: For years, you have imbued your voter base with a deep distrust of the media, the establishment and the elites, to the point that distrust is now programmed into the movement’s DNA. The harsher the media attack, the more enthusiastically the party faithful will rally behind its target.
That has proved useful, producing a party base largely immune to outside influence. But having taught your base to distrust anything that Washington elites tell them, you no longer have a credible means of convincing them that Gingrich would be a disaster. You can’t use the mainstream media, and moderate voices preaching caution from Washington simply have no impact.
For example, it ought to be telling that Romney has been endorsed by 56 Republicans in Congress, including nine senators, while Gingrich — a former speaker who has worked closely with many in Congress — has been endorsed by just eight. The people who know Gingrich best just don’t trust him. But the GOP base has been taught to interpret opposition from Washington as a good thing and a sign that Gingrich can be trusted.
Newt understands that dynamic very well, having helped to create it. He knows that the attacks add to his credibility as an outsider. He has also made an ostentatious point of refusing to attack his fellow Republicans unless provoked, saying he will not participate in a media conspiracy to divide the party. That too plays perfectly to the mindset of many Republican voters.
Unless Gingrich self-destructs and soon, the party establishment and intelligentsia will have no choice but to spend the next few months trying to discredit him while shoving Romney down the throat of a GOP base that gags at the thought. And maybe it’s what’s left of my naivete, but I have to think that it’s not just concern for party, that patriotism is also playing a role. The party elite know Gingrich; they understand that putting Newt in position to become president of the United States would, in its own way, be as grossly irresponsible as putting someone like Sarah Palin in that role.
They just don’t know how to convince the rest of the party of that fact, because it runs counter to so much of what they’ve been told to believe.
– Jay Bookman