Newt's style will only take him so far

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Eventually, Newton Leroy Gingrich's ship is going to crash upon the rocks of Republican realpolitik. When it does, we'll look back on the days of his ugly insurgency with amazement and incredulity.

After winning the South Carolina primary in a blowout no one could have imagined two weeks ago, the former speaker of the House is feeling validated by a tiny corner of the electorate. In a year when the politics of resentment is ascendent, the godfather of GOP grandiosity has been vindicated at the polls for the first time since he stepped down from his speakership.

Having been written off for dead at least twice this election cycle, Mr. Gingrich's unlikely resurrection already guarantees he'll become a case study on how to win a primary with limited resources and very little ground game. It also helps to have an opponent as stupefyingly white-bread as Willard "Mitt" Romney to provide a contrast in styles and attitude.

But Mr. Romney's dullness only partially explains why the Palmetto State's lumpen proletariat gleefully rejected the Republican establishment's anointed for an Antichrist in its own image. Mr. Gingrich understands the conservative South's "siege" mentality and how to exploit it. He never wastes time appealing to the better angels of his constituents.

South Carolina has never gotten over the Civil War or adjusted fully to the notion of social equality among the races. It wallows in its resentment like a ghost haunting the national attic.

As the result of hard-fought political compromises over the years, even the Confederate flag continues to fly on the Statehouse grounds as a reminder of South Carolina's seditious past and its lost way of life. To remove it completely is politically unthinkable these days.

Last year, Mr. Gingrich said that he disagreed with any effort to remove that flag. This year, he evoked "states' rights" and said it should be up to the people of South Carolina to decide, a dodge all the more slimy because of its irony.

That's why South Carolina, which is now neck-and-neck with Iowa as the most irrelevant player in the selection of the eventual Republican nominee, was easy pickings for a racial cynic like Mr. Gingrich.

It is also no coincidence that talk of a "food stamp" president and indentured public schoolchildren increased once the primary race shifted to below the Mason-Dixon line, where Mr. Gingrich has the advantage of cultural affinity. A dandy like Mr. Romney can't possibly relate to or articulate the cultural and political alienation of the American South the way Mr. Gingrich can.

At least Mr. Gingrich's candidacy has done the nation a favor by exposing the hypocrisy of the religious values crowd. Instead of throwing its weight behind a genuine theocrat capable of personal integrity like former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, most conservative Christians in South Carolina proved they could overlook all sorts of behavior in exchange for the promise of electoral power.

They kicked Mr. Santorum to the curb and took up with Mr. Gingrich, a sensualist who can't wait to condemn the morality of others while indulging in the same sins himself.

Like some gangsta Elmer Gantry, Mr. Gingrich is quick to denounce "secular elites" while aspiring to join them at the first opportunity. He is so devoid of self-awareness that he truly believes he isn't a beltway insider with the stink of three decades of influence-peddling and raw politics wafting from every pore of his being.

The biggest casualty of the Republican presidential primaries (besides the dearth of viable national candidates) is the dumbing down of the debate format. Mr. Gingrich has been able to capitalize on the format's weaknesses simply by having the most outsized personality and intimidating the moderators with bogus attacks on the media.

Mr. Gingrich is great at deflecting questions and steering the discussion toward his preferred talking points, but he's not a great debater by any stretch. He's coasted on his reputation as the GOP's "big thinker" since the 1990s with little contradiction from an all-too-credulous national press corps.

On the night he won South Carolina, Mr. Gingrich repeated his nonsensical challenge to President Barack Obama for a series of three-hour-long, Lincoln-Douglas-style debates. As part of the gag, Mr. Gingrich "graciously" offered to allow Mr. Obama to bring along a teleprompter because, as every right-winger knows, the president is an inarticulate boob who wouldn't be in the White House if Bill Ayers hadn't ghost-written his autobiography.

Mr. Gingrich, in turn, would restrict himself to answering questions extemporaneously, relying only on his mighty intellect. In a way, it is too bad Mr. Gingrich won't be the nominee. He needs a butt-kicking like it's nobody's business.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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