Suddenly It’s Newt

by Alexander Cockburn, December 7, 2011

Slapstick depends on repetition. The clown always slips in the pile of elephant crap, inevitably walks into the ladder. By such standards Mitt Romney is now the un­disputed slapstick king of America. About every four to six weeks the pundits shout out in unison, “That’s it. Finally. It’s a wrap for Romney!” But then, a week later here’s the pile of elephant crap, there’s the ladder, and down goes Mitt.

Just when the Mormon millionaire thought he’d got the nomination sewn up, the polls showed him still stuck at about 23% with huge numbers of Republicans saying they didn’t trust the former governor of Massachusetts, that Mormons are in league with Satan, that he took his dog on holiday, tied to the roof of his car, that he’s a flip flopper, that he made his money firing people, that…. On and on.

So there was the Rick Perry challenge. The governor of Texas soared in the polls. He was a cert. Romney raged. Then Perry turned out to be a moron. Romney was on his feet again. A cert. But did his polling numbers surge? Nope. Stuck at 23% and then came another pile of elephant crap, in the form of Herman Cain. Yes, Republi­cans told pollsters they liked his style, his feistiness, his 9-9-9 tax plan, and above all his consummate skill in not being Mitt Romney.

At this point, the pretty smart New York Times con­servative columnist Ross Douthat got weary of the slap­stick and stated categorically in his column on October 22 that “barring an unprecedented suspension of the laws of American politics, Mitt Romney has this thing wrapped up. Note that I am not saying that he will win every primary or caucus. He could easily lose Iowa to somebody, and if he loses Iowa, he will probably lose some Southern primaries as well, giving political report­ers grist for the horse race narrative they crave. But Rom­ney’s path to the nomination is more wide open than for any nonincumbent in decades. He should win New Hampshire and Nevada, Florida and Michigan. “

When it emerged that Cain had some sexual harass­ment problems, plus a very tentative grasp of interna­tional affairs, it looked as though Douthat was entirely right — a wrap for Romney. Inevitability lasted the pre­cise length of time it took to get the elephant back in the ring again. Here we are at the start of December, and a political has-been, an adulterer who dictated harsh terms of divorce to a wife dying of cancer, who has pocketed millions from some of the tackiest corporate lobbies in America, has now roared past Romney, who as usual is face down in elephant crap with the ladder on top on him.

If Republicans are prepared to bet on the has-been — former House speaker and Newt Gingrich — it shows that the most vehement diehards in America are the Republicans who will never, ever vote for Mitt Romney. There are millions of them.

So Newt is having his hour in the sun. Quite an hour. Nationally in the polls of Republican candidates for the nomination, he’s leading Romney 26.6 to 20.4. In Iowa, whose caucuses on January will kick off the year, Gingrich is currently leading Romney 26.3 to 15.

Then, a week later, comes New Hampshire. Relief for Romney. Right now he’s leading Gingrich 36.2 to 19.6. But then on January 21 comes South Carolina. Gingrich currently polls 26.3, Romney, 17.7.

Next, the big, all-important state of Florida — one of the crucial swing states in the ultimate election next November. The elephant, please. Not since the robber baron Henry Flagler blazed a path through Florida in the 19th century with his railroad has there been so trium­phant a progress through the Sunshine state as Newt’s, fittingly so, since Florida is stuffed with hucksters. Newt a staggering 41%, Romney 17%, the sample being 600, questioned by the Florida Times Union.

Back in October Douthat had factored in a Newt surge: “Next week, perhaps, it will be Newt Gingrich’s surprising resilience or Ron Paul’s potential strength in the early caucuses or the appeal of Perry’s flat-tax plan. Then there will come a debate in which Mitt Romney looks shabby instead of smooth, a poll that shows one of his rivals surging, a moment when all his many weak­nesses are on every pundit’s lips. Please do not listen to any of them.”

But maybe there has been one elephant, one pratfall too many. After some tetchy moments with interviewers, Romney is now being whacked for being unable to take a punch, for being a whiner, for being a guy who can’t get above 23%, for a man who… but we’ll leave that joke to Gail Collins.

But can Gingrich survive any kind of resolute scru­tiny? The answer is that in a world that didn’t contain Mitt Romney, probably not. This former college history teacher entered Congress in 1978. His peak moment came in 1994 when Time magazine made him Man of the Year, for being the architect, the prime mover in the ending of Democratic majority rule in the US Congress after 40 years.

At this moment of supreme triumph, when he became Speaker of the House, Gingrich went into a long slide. Bill Clinton outsmarted him in a face-off over Gingrich’s threat to shut down government. Then he whined publicly about not getting a decent seat on Air Force One. Then he plunged ever deeper into the mire of scandal. In 1997, the House of Representatives voted to discipline him for ethical wrongdoing, misusing charita­ble donations. He had to pay a $300,000 penalty as part of a settlement. In 1998 he was reelected for an eleventh term but resigned as speaker and as a member of Con­gress — in January 1999, suggesting that someone might have whispered in his ear that staying out of the slammer required immediate departure from the halls of Congress. Or maybe he just needed more money and decided that one dose of “ethical wrongdoing” charges from House colleagues was enough. He became a lobbyist.

Like another college lecturer, Barack Obama, Gingrich is a glib fellow. Unlike Perry, he’s got several answers to everything. He can take any side of a ques­tion. His past is disreputable in so many egregious ways that it is hard to see how the big Republican donors would want to invest substantial money in his campaign, except perhaps as insurance. His campaign organization is an utter mess. It’s surely a better than even bet that IEDs of scandal await detonation along his campaign trail.

But he’s not Mitt Romney. This year, that’s appar­ently a game changer. If Newt goes down, the Republi­cans will be left with the next in line in the polls — namely Ron Paul. Trouble is, Paul really does have princi­ples, starting with a refusal to endorse torture, assas­sinations, abuses to the Constitution, including end­less wars. That puts him out of the picture.

Alexander Cockburn can be reached at

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