Poor Newt Gingrich must be wondering what he's got to do to get his moment in the spotlight as the not-Romney of the moment.
For months, the Republican rank and file has desperately scrambled for a plausible alternative to the Terminator-like (looks human, acts robotic, and will absolutely never stop, ever, until he's the nominee) Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. Consider the real and imagined candidates who have enjoyed boomlets of GOP support this year, from birther Donald Trump to Tea Party firebrand Michele Bachmann to the curiously underwhelming Texas Gov. Rick Perry to former pizza magnate Herman Cain (and that's not to mention the stalker-quality unrequited love expressed for House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Govs. Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Chris Christie of New Jersey).
What does this crowd have that old Newt lacks? If the GOP really does yearn for full-throated madness, a la Trump, Bachmann, and Perry, Gingrich can do that. After spending his wilderness years burnishing his intellectual heavyweight cred by dabbling in think tanks and opening policy groups, he has returned to his partisan bomb-thrower roots in his presidential run. He has warned that sharia, or Islamic law, is a "mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States." He wants to haul federal judges before Congress to make them account for unpopular decisions they hand down. In last week's Washington Post/Bloomberg GOP debate, he suggested that Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank and former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd should be jailed as responsible for the financial crisis. (Frank in turn quipped that Gingrich must be "so embarrassed by the fact that he is running behind Bachmann in Republican polls that it has increased his already well-developed propensity to utter outlandish things.")
And that was before he doubled down on Sarah Palin's "death panels" and suggested that President Obama "wishes" America would "decay and fall apart." Cain and Bachmann have lost campaign staffers along the way, but they're pikers compared with Gingrich, whose senior staff quit en masse. They apparently didn't like Newt taking a trip to Greece in June shortly after announcing his candidacy, prompting some commentators to speculate that Gingrich was running to promote his books and other enterprises. So? Cain took weeks off for a recent book tour and has used campaign funds to buy copies of his own book.
This is not to say that Newt is without his positive qualities. Unlike Perry, he can speak not only in full sentences but often in full paragraphs. And unlike Romney, he does so without seeming programmed.
I list these Gingrich qualities because he almost certainly will get his audition as Romney's foil. After Cain stumbles, who else will there be? Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, late of the Obama administration, seems to spend most of the debates misdelivering prepared one-liners, like a weird Saturday Night Live refugee. And Rick Santorum's last act in elective life was losing his Pennsylvania Senate seat by a whopping 18 percentage points.
And make no mistake, despite being in a virtual tie with Romney in the latest CNN/ORC poll--while leading or being tied in other recent surveys--Cain is bound to follow the Trump-Bachmann-Perry flame-and-fade arc. Cain has displayed a steadfast devotion to a simple message—that the current tax code should be replaced in its entirety by 9 percent taxes on individual income, business sales (less dividends paid and purchases from other companies), and a national sales tax.
The plan has the virtue of simplicity and catchiness. And he answers all criticism with motivational speaker-style certitude. "The problem with that analysis is that it is incorrect," he said at one point in last week's debate.
His plan will pass, he asserts. How does he know? Congress will find it irresistible, he avers, because the American people love it so much. Cain literally does not employ a pollster, or, reportedly, any political consultants. They might have told him that a national sales tax is a political nonstarter.
Cain insists that his plan is revenue-neutral, adding that a study conducted by an independent group backs up his assertion. But Bloomberg concluded his plan would bring in $2 trillion, which is $200 billion less than the IRS collected in fiscal 2010; the liberal Center for American Progress pegs the figure at $1.3 trillion; and conservatives at the Washington Times and National Review Online estimate it would bring in $1.7 trillion. And the plan has other problems, which he flatly denies, including that it's regressive to the point of being, as former Reagan aide Bruce Bartlett wrote recently, "a distributional monstrosity."
No matter how self-assured he sounds when he declares his critics "incorrect," Cain will eventually have to bend to the laws of political gravity. He cannot go on forever declaring that less is more just because he said so. The more Cain is taken seriously, the more scrutiny he will get, hastening his induction into the ranks of the 2012 has-beens. Then maybe Newt will get his turn.
And what of Romney? He is clearly the class of the field, which along with his plodding serenity increasingly gives him an air of inevitability. But consider a recent report from Gallup which noted that with one exception—John McCain four years ago—every eventual GOP nominee since Richard Nixon in 1959 has enjoyed a commanding lead with at least 41 percent support of his party by this point on the calendar. Romney, by contrast, had 20 percent in the most recent Gallup poll, which is down from mid-September, when he was busy vanquishing Perry. This may end with Republicans anointing Romney, but only after the GOP is dragged kicking and screaming to the altar.
- Vote now: Who is your pick for the 2012 GOP nomination?
- Check out our editorial cartoons on the GOP.
- Read Ken Walsh’s Washington: Will Gingrich’s ‘Contract with America’ for 2012 Beat Cain’s Plan, Romney’s?