Does Newt Gingrich enjoy an electoral advantage with movement conservatives in part because he reaps the benefits of an “adultery edge”?
It would have sounded like a preposterous notion as recently as a few months ago, but the evidence suggests that fresh attention to Newt’s unconventional marital history actually contributed to his startling margin of victory in South Carolina, and his strong support from Tea Party true believers.
Consider the evidence: after the second Mrs. Gingrich appeared on network TV just two days before the primary, and denounced her ex-husband for suggesting an “open marriage” and ultimately abandoning her for his sleek blond mistress (now the third Mrs. Gingrich), his support dramatically soared among every segment of the South Carolina electorate—very much including women and Christian Evangelicals.
Conventional wisdom suggests that this unexpected result stemmed from Newt’s forceful and indignant response in the Charleston, South Carolina debate when CNN’s John King asked him about the charges. There’s no doubt that bitter denunciations of “lame stream media” (in Sarah Palin’s preferred formulation) always play well with the Republican base, but the explosion of pro-Gingrich sentiment may reflect a deeper longing on the part of committed conservatives.
In selecting a champion to confront the incumbent president, Republicans yearn above all for passion and authenticity. They want more than an Electoral College majority in November, 2012: they dream of utterly discrediting Barack Obama and exposing his agenda as profoundly un-American.
For swing voters and independents, Newt’s reference to “Obama’s secular socialist machine” in his 2010 bestseller To Save America may sound extreme and irresponsible; few of them would agree with his conclusion that the current president represents a greater threat to the nation than Nazism or Soviet Communism. In his victory speech in South Carolina, Gingrich three times invoked the name of a Chicago community organizer who died 40 years ago in order to denounce Obama as a “Saul Alinsky radical.” It’s a safe bet that only a tiny minority of the general public could even vaguely identify the late Mr. Alinsky, but among hard core conservatives Newt’s red-meat rhetoric and conspiratorial winks strike a deep emotional chord. The harsher his denunciations of the president and his media apologists, the greater the confidence among right wing true-believers that Gingrich won’t retreat or equivocate in his muscular assaults on the evils of liberalism.
At the very beginning of the debate in Charleston, Romney introduced himself with the declaration: “It’s good to be back in South Carolina, see many good friends here. It’s also great to be here with my wife and some of my kids. I’m married now 42 years. I have five sons, five daughters-in-law, 16 grandkids, and they’re the joy of my life.”
Mitt clearly meant to emphasize the distinction between his orderly, admirable and utterly safe personal history and the messy, lusty, impetuous record of Newt Gingrich—who left two different ailing wives in order to marry two much-younger and more appealing mistresses. The Romney camp clearly assumed that the GOP, as a “family values party” would inevitably embrace a scandal-free “Father Knows Best” candidate in the benign, patriarchal tradition of Eisenhower; they even disclosed to the press that the Romney grandkids often referred to Mitt and Ann as “Ike and Mamie.” It was the other party, according to this reasoning, that happily embraced playboy politicians like Clinton, the Kennedys and John Edwards, but a history of infidelity would surely doom any aspirant for the presidential nomination of the GOP.
This logic clearly failed in South Carolina, where intensive discussion of Newt’s romantic adventures did nothing to undermine his surge in the final 48 hours and even may have contributed to his impressive margin of victory.
Republican voters in the Palmetto State sent a powerful message to their party leadership: this year, we don’t want a candidate who’s safe; we prefer a nominee who’s dangerous. Romney, with his perfect marriage and carefully measured rhetoric, looks reliable, steady… and boring. At the moment, many conservatives seem to prefer a truculent brawler who has committed numerous crimes of the heart and gives free reign to his intense, seemingly uncontrollable, emotions.
For Gingrich enthusiasts, there’s already an obvious choice for those voters who still seek a cool, collected, self-disciplined, telegenic president with a flawless marriage and beautiful children: his name is Barack Obama. The admiring designation “No Drama Obama” may have reassured many voters in 2008 but Newtonians believe that the nation now craves a change. Instead of another calculating politico with ice water in his veins, they propose the conservative Hotspur – daring, visionary, reckless and irrepressible.
As a doughy, ponderous, white-haired intellectual who’ll be 69-years-old at the time of the election Newt Gingrich might normally find it difficult to live up to that image of youthful zest. In this regard, his checkered romantic history may also assist him—especially since he’s regularly accompanied on the campaign trail by the slender, elegant and adoring Callista who is more than 23 years his junior.
The current craving for an intense and impassioned candidate may continue to help Gingrich as the primary campaign unfolds, but in a general election a different calculus inevitably takes hold. In times of trouble, voters occasionally select dashing, daring even dangerous contenders as their party nominees (Barry Goldwater in 1964 or George McGovern in 1972) but when it comes to making final decisions in November, Americans almost always go with Mr. Reassuring and Reliable rather than Mr. Exciting and Excitable.
To compare the process to the intimate arena, it’s the difference between dating and marriage. When pursuing romance as single people we frequently feel drawn to adventurous, even unconventional options but we generally look to safer, less colorful choices when it’s time to settle down. With this in mind, Newt Gingrich helps to satisfy the lusts and emotional needs of the conservative movement at the moment, but Mitt Romney still stands a much better chance at getting the overall electorate to eventually say, “I do.”
A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST.
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