As the last debate of the Republican primary gets underway later tonight, I find myself primarily thinking something along the lines of "Newt Gingrich? Really?" and speculating that if Gingrich is, indeed, the nominee, the Obama camp is going to party like it's 1999 (the year Gingrich resigned from the House of Representatives, for those of my readers too young to remember).
It's not that I can't understand why in a field of shining mediocrity someone like Gingrich would stand out to some Republican voters. What, really, are the other choices? Romney the perpetually underwhelming, whose strong conservative credentials date back all of five minutes or so in election timing (and not even that, to critics of Massachusetts' health care system and easy-imposition of gay marriage under his watch)? Rick Perry of Trans-Texas-Corridor and "hang-em-high" fame? Ron Paul, who tends to make enough sense to make our ruling class deeply uncomfortable, but who is not without problems of his own? Darling of many Catholics Rick Santorum, who looks like the clear moral choice until you start checking his record on torture ("enhanced interrogation") and wondering why he's bashing the bishops on immigration? Michele Bachmann or Jon Huntsman, neither of whom have had what you might call traction since this whole thing started?
Against such a field of glittering inadequacy, Newt Gingrich stands out with a near-presidential aura. He can, after all, speak well (and he doesn't need a teleprompter). He is a Catholic convert and a family man (provided you focus only on his single recent valid marriage and not on the two earlier ones whose endings involved adultery). He says all of the right sort of red-meat/Red State things to all of the right sorts of people. And he's perfectly able to bash Washington insiders with a straight face, despite having been one for much of his own adult life.
What I find amazing is that some of the same people who are currently gung-ho for Gingrich had all sorts of complaints about the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue--complaints about his being more style than substance, complaints about his being essentially a good speech maker but little else, complaints about his having no new ideas and no serious plan to implement the hope and change he was talking about, and so on. But ask any of them what Gingrich's qualifications for the presidency are, and they'll talk about the long-ago Contract with America (that didn't quite pan out as expected); ask them what Gingrich's new ideas are, or how he plans to lead in a time of economic and political uncertainty, and you'll find it rather hard to get a substantive answer from many of Gingrich's self-declared supporters. The only idea seems to be that in an age of Twitter soundbites and marketing disguised as campaigning, Gingrich could beat Obama in what would probably prove to be a highly entertaining political campaign; we'll get around to defining what Gingrich is actually for or what he wants to do that's really substantially any different from what Romney or anybody else wants, once he's the nominee.
You would think that people would have had enough of four years of strong personality but erratic leadership in the White House, but you would probably be wrong. The narrative seems to be, "Sure, he's an unstable egotist with a tendency to grandstand, but he's our unstable egotist with a tendency to grandstand." Which is, alas, not all that reassuring.