I was wrong about Newt. Or, as Newt would say, I was fundamentally wrong. Fundamentally and profoundly wrong. I was as adverbially wrong about Newt as it’s possible to be. Back in the spring, during an analysis of the presidential field, I was asked by Sean Hannity what I thought of Gingrich. If memory serves, I guffawed. I suggested he was this season’s Alan Keyes — a guy running for president to boost his speaking fees but whose candidacy was otherwise irrelevant. I said I liked the cut of this Tim Pawlenty fellow, who promptly self-destructed. There would be a lot of that in the months ahead: Michele Bachmann ODing on Gardasil, Rick Perry floating the trial balloon of his candidacy all year long, only to puncture it with the jaunty swing of his spur ten minutes into the first debate. And when all the other Un-Romney of the Week candidates were gone, there was Newt, the last man standing, smirking, waddling to the debate podium. Unlike the niche candidates, he offers all the faults of his predecessors rolled into one: Like Michele Bachmann, his staffers quit; like Herman Cain, he spent the latter decades of the last century making anonymous women uncomfortable, mainly through being married to them; like Mitt Romney, he was a flip-flopper, being in favor of government mandates on health care before he was against them, and in favor of big-government climate-change “solutions” before he was against them, and in favor of putting giant mirrors in space to light American highways by night before he was agai . . . oh, wait, that one he may still be in favor of. So, if you live in the I-95 corridor, you might want to buy blackout curtains.
But, when you draw them, Newt’s still there, shimmering beguilingly, which is the one adverb I fundamentally never thought I’d be using for this most fundamentally adverbial of candidates. A year ago, we were still talking about Palin and Daniels and Christie and Jindal and Ryan, an embarrassment of riches. Barely a month ago, Cain and 9-9-9 were riding high, an embarrassment of a different kind, and Gingrich was still a single-digit asterisk. But, like Gussie Fink-Nottle, we are all Newt-fanciers now. On the eve of Iowa it seems the Republican base’s dream candidate is a Clinton-era retread who proclaims himself a third Roosevelt, with Taft’s waistline and twice as many ex-wives as the first 44 presidents combined; a lead zeppelin with more baggage than the Hindenburg; a self-help guru crossed with a K Street lobbyist, which means he’s helped himself on a scale few of us could dream of. For this the Tea Party spent three years organizing and agitating?
Gingrich’s timing is brilliant — if it was planned. And, if it’s accidental, it’s kind of freaky. You’ll recall that two decades ago, in one of his many Post-it notes to himself, Newt wrote: “Gingrich — primary mission. Advocate of civilization. Definer of civilization. Teacher of the rules of civilization.” I’m not sure I’m quite ready to acknowledge Newt as the “definer of civilization,” but he is certainly the teacher of the new rules of primary season. Consultants, money, endorsements are for schlubs. The daring candidate is out there running on portentous adverbs: In the land of Cain and Perry, the polysyllabic man is king. Iowa is now all that stands between Newt and the nomination. If he wins there, you might expect New Hampshire to protect its brand by voting for the non-Newt. Instead, what’s left of Romney’s softening lead in the Granite State will vanish as legions of nominal “independents” flood the Republican primary to vote for the candidate they figure will be easiest to beat in the general — as happened in 1996, when more than a few of my liberal neighbors figured why waste your vote renominating Clinton when you can cross over, boost Pat Buchanan, and sabotage Bob Dole. From New Hampshire, the race moves to South Carolina and Florida, where Gingrich is already ahead, and thence to a slew of southern primaries, to the vast majority of whose electorate Mitt is a Massachusetts squish and to the rest a demonic cultist. So the fate of the Romney campaign now rests on some other candidate — Ron Paul — figuring out a way to stop Newt in Iowa.