Another "new" Newt takes the stage

ORLANDO, FL - SEPTEMBER 22: Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks in the Fox News/Google GOP Debate at the Orange County Convention Center on September 22, 2011 in Orlando, Florida. The debate featured the nine Republican candidates two days before the Florida straw poll. Phelan M. Ebenhack-Pool/Getty Images

In a famously flawed Republican presidential field, Newt Gingrich somehow manages to combine all his rivals' shortcomings. Like Herman Cain, he seems more interested in selling books than in running for president. Like Mitt Romney, he struggles to connect with real people. Like Rick Perry, he has offended conservatives with a major policy heresy. Like Michele Bachmann, he often comes across as a theocratic crank. Like Ron Paul, he is a pedant who doesn't know when to go away. Like Rick Santorum, he is a has-been who would disappear if not for televised debates. And on top of everything, the former Speaker is one of the country's best known politicians at a time when politicians are barely more credible than bankers, and he has enough personal baggage to sink a battleship.

Yet Gingrich’s strange campaign is undergoing something of a slow renaissance in recent weeks. So completely written off that nobody has much bothered to criticize him, Gingrich has silently ascended into the double-digit range in a number of national and early-state polls, running ahead of Rick Perry in the most recent national surveys from Fox, CBS/NYT, Rasmussen, and PPP. He’s raised enough money to keep the creditors at bay and once again hire staff in Iowa and New Hampshire. Moreover, the immediate causes of his campaign’s implosion back in the spring—his dismissal of Paul Ryan’s budget as too radical, and his decision to take a Mediterranean cruise with his wife instead of trudging across Iowa—have all but been lost in the static of the intervening months. But what explains Newt’s revival in the hearts of conservatives?

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It’s tempting to say that Gingrich has survived and even thrived primarily as a function of the other candidates’ shortcomings. How hard is it, after all, to come across as a figure of great experience and gravitas in this company? Indeed, one of the remarkable aspects of the current GOP field has been its inability to coalesce into a firm hierarchy of candidates in which someone like Newt can be consigned completely to the dustbin of discarded ambitions. The dramatic rise and fall of Pawlenty, Bachmann, and Perry has made this one of more turbulent invisible primaries in recent memory. Just a month ago Herman Cain was in no better position than Rick Santorum is today. At a time when the front-runner (Romney) seems to have hit some invisible ceiling of support and his supposed main challenger (Perry) strides into the race as a swaggering colossus and then almost immediately takes a nose dive in most polls, it’s nearly impossible to draw a firm line between viable and unviable candidates.

But this judgment probably underrates Newt’s shrewd exploitation of his circumstances. As one recent report on his “comeback” attests, Gingrich has been deliberately parsimonious in his media appearances and press releases, as well as his personal campaigning, in order to maintain the image of being a statesman instead of just another news-cycle-focused, vote-grubbing pol. And in the Republican debates, he has pursued the consistent, crowd-pleasing strategy of confining his criticism to Obama and to the debate moderators (as symbols, even when they work for Fox News, of the hated, biased “liberal media”). It’s an excellent formula for avoiding the candidate crossfire while inducing admiring comments from conservative pundits who view the panelists Newt pounds with a mixture of disdain and envy. Said conservative blogger Ed Morrissey:

Newt Gingrich may have a spot on the debate stage long after he runs out of gas otherwise if he keeps attacking the media rather than the frontrunners.

Moreover, Gingrich has some enduring characteristics that keep him relevant within his own party. His posturing as an eminence grise in the GOP should not obscure the fact that Newt Gingrich remains a hardened conservative ideological warrior in a party currently gripped by a conservative ideological fervor. He’s the candidate who routinely describes the opposition party as “the secular socialist machine;” who made the ludicrous phantom menace of Shariah Law an early signature theme; who revived the “death panels” smear about Obamacare during the last candidate debate. Much as they mistrust him as a corrupted and co-opted Beltway figure, hard-core conservatives also revere Gingrich as someone who in his day hunted the hated RINO as avidly as they do now, and whose election as Speaker represented the conquest of the GOP by the conservative movement and the conquest of Washington (however temporarily) by the GOP. 

So it’s entirely appropriate that in this field of dubious characters, shooting stars, and falling meteors, Gingrich has carved out a solid place for himself and will doubtless continue to strut his stuff in the 14 remaining televised candidate debates, not to mention his latest vanity project: a “Lincoln-Douglas style” one-on-one tilt with Herman Cain in Texas. And while it would still take a miracle or some apocalyptic development for him to win the nomination, there’s no denying that Newt has survived the earlier disasters of his campaign, just as his spokesman Rick Tyler predicted in a press release for the ages back in the dark and stormy nights of May:

A lesser person could not have survived the first few minutes of the onslaught. But out of the billowing smoke and dust of tweets and trivia emerged Gingrich, once again ready to lead those who won’t be intimated by the political elite and are ready to take on the challenges America faces.

Thirty-eight years after his first, failed run for Congress, the ever-talkative former history professor isn’t going anywhere—and against all odds, a new generation of Republicans is eating it up.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.

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