The best thing about the Republican Party’s sad attempt to get over Mitt Romney through a series of superficial relationships with new candidates is that we all knew, sooner or later, they would get around to Newt Gingrich. I personally could not wait. The oddly childish former House Majority Leader has said and done so many weird things that no one who knows his career would vote for him, yet his demeanor is so smug and off-putting that he repels anyone who sees him for the first time. As Ben al-Fowlkes pointed out to me, Gingrich would stand a chance in 1840. In 2011, he seems to have staked his campaign on the twin propositions that A) he has name recognition and B) people won’t remember what he’s like. That’s a recipe for fun, right there. As if to reward us for somehow making him the Republican front-runner, Gingrich has compiled all the likely complaints against him and refuted them, point-by-point, in a 5,000-word defense on his website. The only thing he forgets to mention is that that’s not crazy at all.
The page, titled Answering the Attacks, is basically a primer on what contemporary Republican candidates think they have to do to get elected. Any reader under the impression that the GOP is interested in moderate or even center-right voters will be quickly disabused, as Gingrich takes great pains to distance himself from previous support for health care mandates, Medicare, cap and trade, TARP, the Department of Education and doing anything about global warming. “Newt does not believe there is a settled scientific conclusion about whether industrial development has dramatically contributed to a warming of the atmosphere,” the page says three times. Newt also believes that referring to himself by his own weirdo first name is a good strategy. Newt has never understood why people don’t like him, especially since he is so smart and exciting.
There are two ways to interpret this massive apology. The first is that the man who said he cheated on his wife because he loved America so much is willing to admit his mistakes. The second is that the contemporary GOP has moved so far to the right that Newt Goddamn Gingrich has to scramble to catch up. If you’re wondering whether this is Mature Newt Gingrich With Healthy Sense of Self or Grandstanding Newt Gingrich With Posable Action Threats, consider his stance on immigration: “In his 21st Century Contract with America, Newt pledges to control the southern border by January 1, 2014, waiving any regulations and pushing aside any bureaucracies that get in the way.”
The very next sentence is “Newt believes that America must be a nation of laws.” It’s cool that Gingrich has promised to ignore whatever rules/branches of government try to restrict his behavior as President, but I’m not sure that his promise to control immigration by whatever means necessary is, you know, real. It sounds more like an extension of the Republican power fantasy that has dominated the 2012 race thus far, in which each candidate promises to more boldly and radically remake American governance than the guy before him. Newt is going to make scientists stop believing in global warming and deport all the Mexicans. Herman Cain is going to reduce your income tax to nine percent. Ron Paul is going to abolish the Federal Reserve, and Jon Huntsman is going to wait quietly until someone asks him about China.
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney is going to be the Republican nominee for President. The base will not forgive him for it, but he is the only candidate whose views the broader American public does not regard as prima facie insane. Gingrich’s massive declaration of conservative orthodoxy is a testament to how far the Republican Party has traveled from realistic assessments—of practical policy, of American attitudes toward money and ethnicity and religion, of what a Republican President might actually accomplish during the continued existence of other political parties, of anything.
Yes, we haven’t even started the primaries yet, and yes, now is the time in the election cycle when the opposition candidates go radical. But imagine, for a second, that they were saying this stuff in the context of a general election. Imagine candidate Gingrich reminding the entire American electorate that he’s the only guy to identify the threat the United Nation poses to gun ownership, and that “on the first day, he will instruct the Department of Justice and State Department to defend American sovereignty and block all international treaties that infringe on Second Amendment rights.” That’s crazy talk, and like Newt’s plan to “push aside” regulations and bureaucracies, it is born of an imagination that sees November 2012 as the moment that the contemporary Republican Party finally replaces contemporary America. Call me crazy, but I would like to see a presidential candidate try to bring me around to his way of thinking, not just swear ever more fervent oaths to the ideologues he is so certain outnumber me.