This weekend, as women voters began to suspect that pulling a lever for Herman Cain involved an entirely different act in an enclosed booth, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich leapfrogged Cain and Mitt Romney to take the lead in a poll by Public Policy Polling for the Republican presidential nomination.
Outside of this bizarro GOP primary season, the result would be unthinkable. Finding Newt the head of the presidential pack is like turning on Super Friends and finding Aquaman in charge. Only in addition to speaking conversational Fish, Aquaman is also a dick. If there are two specialties Newt's always had, it's speaking in a persuasive political language and alienating everyone.
Newt packages ideas well; it's his personality that's the problem. The decade he spent in political exile lobbying and punditing played to his strengths. He spun statements to massage the news cycle, but those statements advanced ideas or policies, not "Newt the Candidate."
His candidacy hasn’t been taken seriously this campaign season, in part because his entire senior staff resigned at once, and also because his legacy of ethics problems and adultery are a liability. Journalists' "surely you must be joking, Mr. Speaker" attitudes have translated into softball debate questions with few follow-ups, which plays to Newt's high points as a master of American dilettantism. He's not a dumb person; it's just that you can usually trace his good ideas to someone else. Reading the “Contract with America” was like arriving at a conservative idea buffet just before closing and looking at every tired tax rant and business panegyric from the last 30 years desiccating in a chafing dish.
Newt's a great packager and window-shopper of philosophy. We Americans don't read as much as we ought, and our self-consciousness about this tends to make us reflexively credit anyone who claims he does. Gingrich tendentiously delivers policy banalities while citing books he's read or written, and it's easy to think, “Ah, a learned observation.” It's the political equivalent of going to someone's house, seeing his 2,000-book library, and feeling uncomfortable about correcting him, even if everything he says makes him sound like Cliff Clavin. Except, in this case, Cliffy gets to go from house to house delivering welfare checks for $0.00, and then children die.
But if there's one thing that Newt's rise to the top illustrates better than any other, it's Mitt Romney's inability to seize the initiative. He's campaigned at varying degrees of intensity essentially since the Obama inauguration, and he's watched as Donald Trump, Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Cain, and now Gingrich have vaulted past him.
Trump turned into a paranoid birther; Bachmann claimed that proven vaccines make kids retarded; Perry doesn't remember his platform; and Cain's got all this stuff twirling around in his head. Yet Mitt remains in second, on message and without any adulation. This is probably part of his plan.
Serious opinion-makers in the GOP have all but officially endorsed him, which means that it's probably in his best interest to let every other crazy at a debate podium flame out. Veterans of the Newt Gingrich experience know that he will eventually say something odious and terminal. Romney needs only to prevent unforced errors. Passion wins with the base, but passionate speech on the primary stump makes for embarrassing memes and ugly video clips that the Democrats can bring out in the general election.
Still, Romney will need to emerge from his prevent-defense mode for a general election, and until then questions will linger about his ability to grab the initiative. Right now, it's uncertain whether he can even do that with his base.
Take this past weekend. Romney tweeted on Friday: "I'm now on Google+ — add me to your circles and stay tuned this weekend for a big announcement." And then… nothing. On Saturday, he thanked people for watching the debate, then didn't update again until Tuesday. The content on his Google+ page would be identical to the content on his Facebook page, except there's actually less of it.
The sad thing is, Mitt wasn't trying to appeal to independents or the GOP as a whole. Mitt was talking to his followers, an audience who have already self-selected as being interested in Mitt Romney. Presumably they were waiting eagerly by their computers all weekend with a plastic bottle to pee in for Mitt’s big, exciting announcement, only to find out that he doesn’t do “big,” and especially not “exciting.” Romney can't even take advantage of opportunities he presents himself.
Previously: High Tech Tokenism