Man walks into a column, no.49: Newt

As news – hardly news – filters through that (whisper it) there’s a new frontrunner in the race to be the Republican presidential nominee I couldn’t resist offering my own personal perspective on why the likely voters in the Grand Old Party primaries seem so eager to leap onto Anyone Who Isn’t Mitt Romney.

The latest NonRom is someone deeply, uncomfortably familiar to anyone who has been following US politics over the last couple of decades: ex-Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. New NBC/Wall Street Journal poll results (covered in the FT here) suggest that Newt has opened up a double digit lead over Mitt – first choice of 40 per cent of Republican primary voters compared to 23 per cent for Romney – but would be likely to struggle against Obama in the presidential election itself, if it were held today.

The race is far from over and Gingrich’s thirty odd years in politics (not to mention ‘colourful’ – i.e. sex and filthy lucre filled – personal life) could well mean he comes a cropper before too long – as Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod commented yesterday ‘the higher a monkey climbs … the more you can see his butt’. But with the first primaries only a couple of weeks away it could well be that the Republicans have found someone who they can comfortably, enthusiastically get behind.

Coverage of Gingrich’s sudden front-runner status often focuses by way of explanation on why Newt is a clearly ‘committed member of the tribe’ or why Romney is an untrustworthy flip-flopper (see for example this Washington Post piece which makes both points). But that doesn’t quite explain the speed with which successive NonRom candidates have been latched upon, including most recently a man who referred to himself in the third person and was, well, clearly an idiot.

I think the problem with Romney is this: he sells himself as a tactical choice to beat Obama and in so doing highlights the fact that as a person he is actually quite a lot like Obama. And if there’s one thing that Republicans hate – even more than married gay immigrant tree-hugging neo-commies – it’s Obama.

What really brought the Obama similarities home to me was this profile of Romney published on Sunday by veteran Washington Post writer (and Laura Bush biographer!) Ann Gerhart. That Romney is a rational, intelligent, wonky type is one thing. The problem is he is too good a person. Mitt’s record speaks for itself: married to his high school sweetheart for 42 years, donates 10 per cent of his considerable funds to church, earned his law degree and MBA at the same time. From Harvard. Before he was 30. When he already had a young family. You get the picture: hardly presidential material.

I say that but actually Republican voters – all voters in fact – have seen ample evidence in recent years that even a man with such prodigious talents as Obama is unable to achieve all that much in the face of the momentous pressures affecting the US in the early 21st Century. Everything from Congressional gridlock, global recession and the rise of new world powers conspires against.

It’s in this context that the stormtroopers of the GOP want someone who can fight their corner, who they can feel good about and who can make them feel good: ugly, imperfect, blinkered and angry as they are. That person is not Mitt, but it might well be Newt.

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