Newt Gingrich and the castration of Republican politics
The substitution of Newt Gingrich for Herman Cain in the 2012 Republican primaries is a confusing managerial move. It’s a little like swapping like for like; protracted embarrassment for protracted embarrassment.
After all, what brought down Herman last week brought down Newt last decade. Also, I could have sworn this was an argument we’ve already had. It was summer. Our world had been shaken by democracy in the Middle East and would be shook by massacre in Scandinavia. Our Prime Minister was ushering in the year of austerity, the late Muammar Gadaffi was realising the full meaning of a ‘no-fly-zone’, Anthony Weiner was exposing himself on twitter. Yes, it was summer, and the Republican primaries were gaining momentum. The ‘ready-made’ (or ‘just-add-funds’) candidates were being considered, lampooned and disregarded. Various manifestations of the Tea Party were stewed in the pages of the analytical heavyweights and ‘Newt Gingrich’ became Jay-Leno’s punch line, again. Admittedly, he did hold serious company, and ‘compete’ in a handful of serious debates, but then he was brushed aside by the left and the right almost unanimously. Why? Because, elephants never forget, and neither do donkeys.
If history as taught us anything, it’s that Gingrich isn’t exactly fit for office. It takes a special kind of candidate, and one we weren’t quite ready for, to leave – and allegedly cheat on – his wife in the midst of cancer and his office in the midst of political scandal. But summer was a long time ago, and candidates have been falling like leaves. There’s nothing like the decimation of the entire Republican field to alter voter priorities. “I mean, what’s a little adultery really? At least he isn’t this guy.” And it’s not like he’s been set an impossible challenge; the ascendancy of Newt would have at least been harder had he had someone less inept to usurp. Although, the challenge wouldn’t have been much greater if fellow Georgian Herman Cain hadn’t bowed out in a whirlwind of blunders, mishaps, controversies and idiocy. (The amazing lesson of Cain’s demise is not what brought him down but what didn’t. Before death by the sordid, he survived asking for a mulligan on ‘Libya’, he survived the release of the 9/9/9 tax plan, and actively benefited from the revival an old YouTube clip that’s as fascinating as it is horrific.) But if Gingrich’s poll surge is the fire that lights the Presidential race, Cain was more the match than the gasoline. Candidates have been dropping for weeks. Sarah Palin, who occupied the space just to the right of Gingrich, forwent 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to take up residency in the evening programming of MTV and the pages of Hustler (almost). Her ‘lite’ counter-part, Michele Bachmann, lasted slightly longer but has faded a little since gay-curing facilities went out of fashion in the post-DADT era. Ron Paul, on the other hand, is the ‘keep-on-trucking’ candidate who has sat on 8% of the vote since polling began. (He’s one to watch though, especially with a late surge in Iowa this morning).
Enter Mitt Romney and Rick Perry; generic Republican candidate A and generic Republican candidate B. They’ve been presented as largely indistinguishable – and perfectly manicured – for the entire race. So much so that the desperate attempt by the latter to create some daylight between them almost saw his candidacy implode with the rest. Now I haven’t run any Republican presidential campaigns, but remembering the names of the federal departments you wish to unburden of employees seems important. The American public agreed, and Perry’s polls took the requisite nose-dive. However, and in response to the entrance of Newt Gingrich, their tactics have converged again, meeting on the squalid ground of ’sound-bite’ politics.First it was Romney, who introduced a change in strategy to an audience of the Republican faithful in Arizona on Tuesday.
It’s rare for politicians not to cloak their agenda, not to at least appear to appeal to the better side of voters, and to completely forgo virtue. Tuesday’s news was rare. It was an unashamed reversion to the insoluble politics of sound-bites and an unabashed implementation of ‘victory by aggression’. Romney wants to win, and it doesn’t seem to matter much how he does it. “Mitt Romney previewed his ‘closing argument,” wrote Phillip Rucker in the Washington Post last week, “he will begin a more aggressive campaign as he tries to regain his lead in the presidential field with just four weeks until voting begins in Iowa.” Rucker goes on to detail a series of strategic moves by Romney that will change the lens, if not the focus, of the Republican primaries. There will be more TV spots and the odd Sunday talk show appearance. There will be fewer debates (having already bowed out of a couple) and less substance. There will be more noise, but less sound: more politics, less policy. Welcome, dear reader, to the end game. Romney’s campaign will read as something akin to a conclusion. Those all-important steps from vision to policy will be forgone for cheap rhetoric and cheap attacks. Attacks like labelling Gingrich a ‘career politician’ or telling the crowds in paradise Valley he stands for a “society of merit”. Mitt, who doesn’t stand for a society merit? Who’s against a society of merit? When was the last time anyone inspired voters with the dream of a society of demerits? Merits, Mitt, are like Grandma’s apple pie, and you know that.
Rick Perry’s Grandmother probably didn’t make good apple pie. It was probably too sharp and a little hot when she served it to a hungry Rick Perry, who would eat it and dream of a day – probably a day far away – when his illustrious gubernatorial career would lead to a fierce presidential bid. A presidential bid that could hang-on when all others lost their grip, a bid that could weather the storms of political inadequacy, a bid that could keep on growing, getting bigger and bigger, until wrapping-up, neatly, in a 30-second advert for homophobia and theocracy. Ultimately, if the entrance of Gingrich made Romney give up on policy, it’s made Perry give up on politics. His reaction to the Gingrich surge has been the release of the “strong” spot-ad, which makes a mockery of American politics and Republican voters alike, and has been digested well here. Romney’s previously impenetrable hold on the first four primaries had him labelled the ‘inevitable’ Republican nominee, but, just in the last week, Gingrich has passed him in Iowa, the bellwether state of South Carolina, and his catching up in New Hampshire. The entrance of the former Speaker of the House has cut the ribbon on the final stage of the pre-primaries and changes the race for the worse. Republican voters will be stuck choosing between soaring rhetoric A, B or C. It isn’t all doom and gloom though; we can wash away the bitter disenfranchisement with the warming taste of hot apple pie.
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