This is the week it became clear that nobody knows anything. Pretty much all the conventional wisdom about the 2012 presidential race has turned out to be wrong. Newt rules, Cain’s over, Romney’s rocked. Nobody knows what’s going to happen.
We’ll start with the president:
Gallup. Obama down. Forty-three percent approval. Lower than Jimmy Carter at this point. The Democratic spin: This is good, with the economy so bad you’d think his numbers would be lower! Actually you’d think an incumbent nobody likes would be exactly where Jimmy Carter was before he lost in a landslide. More to the point, the president’s numbers went downward, not upward. Why? Because the congressional super committee failed to cut $1.2 trillion out of $44 trillion in projected deficits.
Once again the president thought he was playing a shrewd game: The collapse of the super committee would serve his political purposes. Once again he misjudged.
What has occurred is an exact repeat of the summer’s debt ceiling fiasco. Then the president summoned a crisis, thinking people would blame it on the Republicans. Instead they blamed Washington, which is to say him, because he owns Washington. Immediately his numbers fell. As they did again this week.
The only way to win America right now is to govern selflessly and seriously. His top advisers, those knowing, winking bumpkins, cannot see this. America is in crisis. It knows it’s in crisis. It cannot tolerate the old moves anymore, the “every problem is just an issue to be manipulated for gain.” The president was once seen as an idealist. He was hired to be an idealist! His ignorant shrewdness, his small-time cleverness—it just won’t do. Nobody wants it. It’s why people want to fire him.
On Newt Gingrich: If you’ve seen this week’s poll numbers from Iowa, Florida and South Caroline you know it doesn’t look like an increase in his support but an eruption. It is as if something that had been kept down had quietly been gathering energy, and suddenly burst through its bonds. The entire Washington journo-political complex has been taken by surprise by something that not only wasn’t predicted but couldn’t have been. Newt had no steady movement in the polls. He was regularly dressed down by the base. His staff had fled en masse when he left the campaign for an Aegean cruise with his wife.
What happened is a better story than the establishment didn’t know what the base was thinking. It’s that the base didn’t know what the base was thinking.
All it knew was it was only moderately enthusiastic about Mitt Romney. There were a lot of debates—they were history-changing this year, whatever happens. Six, seven or eight million people would watch them and talk about them afterwards, at work or in comment boxes and email groups. And after they said, “Romney held his own,” and, “Perry’s kind of a disappointment,” they’d come to agreement on this: “I really liked what Newt said when he said they shouldn’t bash each other and re-elect Obama.” “I liked when Newt confronted the moderator.” It was always at the end of the conversation that this got said. Because the base knew Mr. Gingrich couldn’t win, so why waste the breath or bandwidth?
“He’s incredibly lucky,” said a friend of his. “Bachmann, Cain, Perry went away. But Newt didn’t go away.” The friend said part of the reason for his rise is that “he’s been there forever. He’s spoken at every GOP dinner. People say, ‘I liked him back in ‘83!’ It all accrued.” He compared Gingrich to IBM. “He had more equity than we gave him credit for.”
Mitt Romney is obviously taking it seriously. He’s lost some of his equanimity. I knew he thought he was in trouble when he didn’t look at his competitors in the last debate like they were lovely little frolicking gerbils.
Even Mr. Gingrich’s biggest supporters begin conversations about him with, “Believe me, I know the downside, I understand the criticism.” They stress his strong points: experience, accomplishment, intelligence. But they are to a man surprised by his new appeal—they didn’t really know he had any—and surprised by his resurrection. They are impressed by his brains, and always have been, and impressed by his will. They also fear he will blow it, that he’ll prove unsteady, impulsive.
He is grandiose—he compares himself to Lincoln, Henry Clay, Churchill: “I am much like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.” There are always two choices to make in modern, media-driven politics: claim you are like Lincoln, or be like Lincoln. Claim you are something and repeat it so people will think of it when they see you, or actually be that something and hope someone will notice. Mr. Gingrich tends to choose the first path. John Gaddis, in his biography of George Kennan, quotes him saying of himself: “I have the habit of seeing two opposing sides of a question, both of them wrong, and then overstating myself.” This sounds like Newt, though one writes it reluctantly, as he might hear about it and start saying “I am George Kennan.”
He often seems to be playing a part in a historical novel he’s dictating in his mind—Newt the underdog, Newt the visionary. He has a compulsion to be interesting, which accounts for some of his overheated language—things are always decayed, corrupt, sick, catastrophically tragic. He also often sounds like a cable TV political analyst, which he’s been for the past decade. He appraises his own candidacy instead of just being the candidate. The race used to be between “Mitt and Not Mitt,” but now it is between “Newt and Not Newt.” He is “the only one who can win.” This week in South Carolina: “I’m the one candidate who can bring together national-security conservatives and economic conservatives and social conservatives.” Candidates should let other people say that; serious candidates should let voters say it to exit pollers. He shouldn’t be making the grubby bottom-line calculations, he should be making an elegant case for his leadership.
His biggest problem? The millions he has made lobbying—sorry, teaching history—as a former speaker, Capitol Hill insider and member of the permanent political class. Some of his paychecks came from the very agencies (such as Freddie Mac) that succeeded for 20 years in operating without proper oversight due to the influence and protection of Capitol Hill insiders and members of the permanent political class. That is the great scandal of our time, and it helped tank our economy. He has been part of it.
Second, what is known as the baggage problem. Its impact on voters is harder to predict, in part because many of them have lived through and fully experienced the past 40 years in America. Bill Clinton, if he ran for president tomorrow, would probably win in a landslide, and he has enough baggage to break the trolley carts of 10 Amtrak porters. Mr. Gingrich’s people believe it won’t harm him because it’s all old news, he’s addressed it. On this, Mr. Gingrich may be helped by the current air of crisis, which itself may account for why he’s burst through now: People feel America’s problems are so huge, so scarifying and urgent that personal judgments feel like an indulgence. “Can he help turn things around? Then hire him. Obama is a devoted husband and incompetent. Let it go!”