That Gingrich could soar in popularity for even a nanosecond among the 75 percent and particularly its Fox core would seem, to put it mildly, counterintuitive. He is a far more extravagant flip-flopper than Romney, and, like Romney, has in the past endorsed radioactive elements of “Obamacare.” He is nearly a careerlong creature of Washington and its K Street gravy train. He has espoused the same (mildly) soft line on illegal immigration that was supposed to have destroyed Rick Perry. The Teflon that allowed Gingrich to deflect all these demerits—until an avalanche of attack ads threatened to bury him in Iowa—is surely not his public personality, an amalgam of preening egomania and snide superiority that borders on the transgressively hostile. And heaven knows his saving grace is not his perennially self-advertised genius as a “historian.” He is a scholar only if compared with Bill O’Reilly, whose current best seller, Killing Lincoln, is replete with references to the Oval Office even though the Oval Office wasn’t built until 1909.
No, what endears Gingrich to the 75 percent is the one big thing that matters: He is the only candidate who has been the leader of an actual Republican revolution, even if it went down in flames within a year. He walked the walk beyond even Ron Paul’s dreams, shutting down the entire federal government. And he has talked the talk as well, with a grandiosity beyond the wildest imagination of anti-Obama tea-partyers waving DON’T TREAD ON ME signs. Back in his 1994–95 heyday, Gingrich positioned himself as the leader of “a rising populist majority” taking down the last defenders of “the old order.” He saw his mission as to advance “the cause of freedom,” and he portrayed a government shutdown as nothing less than “the heart of the revolution.” In 2012, such Newtonian rhetoric from the “Contract With America” era could be dusted off and recycled with only minor updating (e.g., more anti-Obama slurs like his claim that the president exhibits “Kenyan anti-colonial behavior”).
The animosity of the Republican elites only empowers Gingrich, much as it did Palin and Cain; the Old Guard is the right enemy (along with Democrats and the news media) to have. The contrast that Mitt draws between himself and Newt also plays into Gingrich’s hands. “I’m not a bomb thrower, figuratively or literally,” Romney is fond of saying; he instead offers “sobriety” (figuratively and literally, as it happens). That’s a loser in the 75 percent marketplace, where bomb throwers, at least figurative ones, are the rage. If these are “crazy and extraordinary times,” wrote Jonah Goldberg, one conservative pundit who did not shut the door on Newt, “then perhaps they call for a crazy, extraordinary—very high-risk, very high-reward—figure like Mr. Gingrich.”
The leaders of the 25 percent just hope this mood will go away, after Newt presumably goes the way of all the other non-Mitts. David Brooks has written that the GOP working class (his language) will come to its senses and embrace Romney “when people actually start to think seriously.” The pro-Mitt Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review asserts that his party is “increasingly resigned” to Romney as if he were the nutritious political equivalent of spinach. The sole prominent national conservative whose enthusiasm for Romney extends beyond damning him with faint praise is Dan Quayle. The only real reason, one imagines, that any of the Establishment supports Romney is that he’s an incredibly useful front man. He puts a milquetoast mask of garden-variety old-school conservatism on a revolutionary party that would scare the hell out of moderates if one of its rank and file’s favored non-Mitts were leading the charge. This “electability” argument explains why a former Romney skeptic like Ann Coulter reversed herself and (halfheartedly) endorsed him.
The panicked GOP Establishment, belatedly closing its ranks to hasten Romney’s coronation, could well get its wish. Gingrich’s capacity for self-immolation is infinite, and the only non-Romney left who could make trouble is Paul. Either way, the 25-75 split has been a lucky break for Obama. Though the White House has made a great show of saying that it regards Romney as its toughest potential opponent, that stance has always seemed disingenuous. In a time of economic woe, it’s a gift to run against a chilly venture-capital tycoon who, in Mike Huckabee’s undying characterization from the 2008 GOP primary campaign, looks like “the guy who laid you off.” If a candidate can attract only a quarter of his own party after essentially four years of campaigning, where is the groundswell going to come from next November? The thinness of that 25 percent is dramatized by the Real Clear Politics compilation of polls of Republican contenders and voters: Of 59 surveys taken since the Perry boomlet of August, Romney has only placed first in 20. A bomb-throwing non-Mitt, by contrast, would energize the 75 percent majority that whipped Mitt the other 39 times—particularly the activists who might otherwise be tempted to sit on their hands on Election Day. But fielding a radical ticket would come at the price of energizing any Democrats who also are thinking of staying home in 2012.