Live-Blogging The Jacksonville Debate (Jan. 26 2012)

Live blog of the CNN Jacksonville debate is below in reverse chronological order. Excuse the time-stamps. I’m blogging this from Arizona.

Final thoughts.

This was a boring debate for the most part. No Newt Gingrich feasting on the moderator’s flesh. No pivotal moments where races are won or lost.

Fundamentally, Romney was much better than we’ve seen him in some time. He started out a little sketchy, but rallied early on and got plenty of kidney punches in at Newt.

Both Ron Paul and Rick Santorum sounded more sincere than either Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney. Of course I find most of the things Santorum actually says fairly repulsive, while I find Ron Paul to be a continued breath of fresh air and sanity. Yes, I find most of what Paul says thousands of times saner than what his GOP rivals say. And Paul says a lot of crazy things.

I think he had a “sparkly” performance tonight, as Andrew Sullivan noted during his live-blog. But it’s just not enough. Paul talks about civil liberties, peace, and other issues near and dear to my heart. But the American electorate just isn’t on the same page, and the GOP is on a different planet.

I think if anything, this debate goes to Romney, possibly even shoring up his victory here. Newt wasn’t able to pull off the same red-meat-magic he performed in South Carolina. He seemed defensive, petulant, and insincere. His attempts to preemptively bury the hatchet with Romney and try to team up on The Media fell flat on their face, and Romney was ready and waiting to pounce – which he did quite adeptly.

Santorum may as well bow out. He did fine but he has no momentum. Sticking around is a mistake. Ron Paul has a national network and even if he never leads the pack he can make it for the long haul – which is good, because he can keep the conversations he’s started going. A one-on-one debate with Romney in Virginia could be very interesting. If Newt loses Florida, he may as well stay in for one or two more races I think, but it’s not going to be easy after a Florida loss.

Romney is probably all grins right now. A much-needed comeback for the former governor, if not anything particularly inspiring.

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7:59 PM. (Arizona time.) If this was the drinking game I would have had like four or five “fundamental” shots and at least a couple more “Reagan” shots. I’ll need to think of better rules.

The debate is over. My closing thoughts in a moment.

7:57 PM. Suddenly this leaped into my head:

7:54 PM. My timestamps are weird because I’m blogging from Arizona. I’m not going to transpose.

Nice to hear Ron Paul talk about civil liberties a bit. But civil liberties won’t win presidencies, unfortunately. Maybe some day, if we can work together toward that goal.

Romney does seem smooth tonight. Much more polished and maybe even a little personable. But his answer is rambling here on what makes him the better candidate to take on Obama.

7:52 PM. Why doesn’t CNN have ads online between breaks? Missed opportunity.

7:49 PM. I took a ten minute break to tell a story to my daughter before bedtime. Moments like this – telling a story to a four and a half year old in between segments of a Republican debate – remind me what America is really about. It’s not about all of this. It’s not about politics at all. It isn’t about all the things that make all these people so damn angry at liberals or conservatives or whatever. It isn’t even about America.

I totally lost my train of thought here, but you get my point hopefully. We fret about this stuff because it’s like a Soap Opera to us now. So much of our entertainment is derived from politics, even if that entertainment is just to make us feel angry. To feel something.

7:48 PM. Just got back. Thought that Santorum just called the Constitution the “Howl” of America. I have seen the greatest mind of my generation write a long document about the rights of individuals…

7:38 PM. The CNN plant in the audience asks about Israel-Palestine. (Okay, I kid, but c’mon.)

I have a hard time imaging any of these guys negotiating peace in the Middle East. Ron Paul holds views on the region closest to my own, but of course Ron Paul believes we have no business negotiating peace.

Newt is asked about his “invented people” remark and doesn’t really back down. They were “Arab” before he said. Does he honestly not understand what the definition of “Arab” is? Seriously? We are given platitudes about “mutual prosperity” and digs at the political leadership there. I’m waiting for Newt to attack the Israeli media next.

Newt wants to move the embassy to Jerusalem? And Ron Paul is not given a turn.

7:36 PM. “When Fidel Castro leaves this planet…” We demonize our political opponents. But the problems in Cuba go much deeper than Castro. The country won’t miraculously change when Castro is flung to the fiery depths of hell. We need to work to bring these so-called rogue nations into the global economy.

Newt Gingrich is speaking again, but I find him dreadfully dull tonight.

7:34 PM. Ron Paul isn’t going to win this race. More importantly, Ron Paul’s message is going to fall on too many deaf ears. On Cuba, Paul is once again 180 degrees away from his opponents. Common sense on better relationships with Cuba, trade with Cuba, openness. No “jihadist under the bed every night.” I wish Ron Paul could just keep running for president.

Romney wants to avoid Ron Paul’s answer even when pressed by Blitzer. Let’s attack Obama’s policy instead! He will, in the process, ignore Obama’s actual record on this.

7:31 PM. Gingrich is on the defense. Whining and squirming.

Nob Akimoto says my beer blogging is more interesting than the debate. Next time we’ll do a drunk blog. Every time anyone says “fundamentally” take a drink. Every time someone says “Reagan” take a drink. Every time someone says “freedom” take a drink. We’ll come up with more rules.

We’re on to Cuba again now. It’s funny to hear so many people who pretend to advocate free trade so badly misunderstand the problems with our trade policy toward Cuba.

7:28 PM. A question on the Reagan mantle. Like we have to actually put Reagan in the questions. Come on Wolf, they’ll insert Reagan all on their own. Romney manages to be both humble and talk himself up at the same time. He’s got this whole job interview thing down.

7:24 PM. Oh goodness, I thought Newt was going to say “having gotten to know them I think all three of my wives would be great first ladies” but of course he was saying all the wives of the other candidates.

I get the feeling that this debate, unless it changes course very soon, will not change the debate in a, ahem, fundamental way; will not alter the course of the race at all except that Romney may be able to win this thing after all. Gingrich just isn’t doing his thing.

Santorum has a nice little smile when talking about his wife. He sounds more sincere than Romney or Gingrich. He and Paul are certainly more authentic than the other two. Interesting that the least sincere of the candidates is the front-runner, and the second least sincere is nipping at his heals. Ah democracy.

7:23 PM. What a dumb question. We’re asking the candidates to defend their wives? This is all fine for three of the candidates, but if Gingrich answers wrong Callista will eat his heart with a spoon.

7:21 PM. Founders Dirty Bastard Scotch Style Ale. Malty. I’m on a big hops kick so the IPA is a little better in my book. But this is still a very tasty beer.

7:17 PM. Ron Paul doesn’t name names. He wants people to understand monetary policy. He says Hispanic community should understand a non-interventionist foreign policy. Oh good it’s a break. Beer me.

7:16 PM. Rick Santorum kisses Marco Rubio’s ass from a distance. A very impressive ass-kissing if I do say so myself. What did Newt say? I wasn’t listening. Romney is ready for the answer, naming just about every Hispanic Republican in elected office in America. At least Republicans.

7:12 PM. This:

Wolf wants to move on. Santorum wants to hit Romney in the face. Romney wants to smirk. Ron Paul chuckles. He’s sort taking on a prankster shape tonight – almost Puck-ish. He’s the only one who seems like he’s having any fun, that’s for sure.

7:09 PM. I need that second beer in a fundamental and profound way. Going across the house to get the beer may be a grandiose vision that will cost me a minute or two of this riveting debate. But I am fundamentally in favor of getting a top-down beer that I can drink from the bottom-up. Or something.

7:08 PM. Damnit. The beer is gone. The fridge is all the way across the house. What can the candidates do for me to help me get my beer? Eh? Eh?

7:02 PM. Audience member asks about lack of healthcare. Ron Paul shows once again that he understands that the employer-insurance problem, but he only understand part of the problem with healthcare. Yes, subsidies (among many other factors) lead to increased healthcare costs. But what about the other factors? There are other market problems – such as a lack of price transparency – but there’s also the fact that we have a lot more medical care than we used to have back in Paul’s younger days. It would be more expensive regardless. Neither Paul or Gingrich has a good answer on how to actually get to a point where people can afford insurance on their own.

Romney is in uncomfortable territory, but he’s right so far about employer-based insurance coverage. But again, how do we get individuals on their own insurance plans?  If we have any pre-existing conditions we can’t get coverage. If we’re too old, too sick, too poor, we can’t get health insurance. Government may have made a hash out of healthcare but there isn’t a clear market way back.

6:59 PM. Roland Dodds in the comments: “I do love that in an election focused on jobs and the economy, we have now spent 5 minutes on moon colonies. Says a lot about the Republican Party.”

My thoughts exactly.

6:58 PM. Romney is talking about firing people again. This must be a favorite of his. Careful, Mitt, you may call back Donald Trump from the dead…

6:53 PM. Newt talks about the inefficiency of NASA. Wants prizes to get private companies into the space race. Gingrich knows his futurism; Romney knows it’s a bad investment. Gingrich tries to make the case that Americans should colonize the moon before the Chinese. Can we rekindle the old magic of the Cold War space race?


Santorum seems to be backing Gingrich’s enthusiasm but takes him down a peg on responsibility when it comes to spending big money on big ideas. Paul wants to send politicians to the moon. Good idea.

6:51 PM. Okay we’re on to the moon colony. I like the idea, honestly, but not the idea of Newt being behind it. This is his opportunity to shine, though. Romney is talking about cost. It’s true – it’s a costly thing to run a space program. But the Space Coasters are thinking about jobs.

6:50 PM. Ron Paul says he’d gladly race anyone on a bike. You can’t campaign with as much vitality as this guy without being in great shape, even in your seventies. Gingrich has nice things to say about Paul’s health.

6:45 PM. Since when is Gingrich an advocate of the flat-tax and the gold standard? Is this a new thing tailored specifically to this election or has Gingrich had these ideas listed out before somewhere?

Santorum is taking a slightly more populist approach. He calls it the Reagan approach.

Ron Paul says he wants to get rid of the 16th amendment. Then he talks about having sympathy with the 99%. He’s the only Occupy Wall Street fan who talks about sound money and a sound currency. It’s sort of wonderful, this Austrian take on income inequality. No reason why libertarians and progressives can’t work toward common goals.

6:41 PM. And….we’re back. On to taxes and tax returns because Blitzer wants everyone to know everything they can possibly know about these guys. Newt gets in his first viper-strike at the media when Blitzer asks about his attacks on Romney. “This is a nonsense question.” Blitzer strikes back, unlike John King, pointing out that Gingrich made the accusation. Good for Blitzer, but the crowd boos. Romney hits Gingrich hard again, saying that it would be nice if Gingrich would stick by what he says in an interview rather than try to dodge the question. Romney is picking Newt apart tonight. Is the speaker’s shtick wearing thin?

6:38 PM. I’m drinking a Founders Centennial IPA for the first part of the debate. Something tells me I will need to resupply very soon. It’s a hoppy, delicious, strong brew.

6:35 PM. Paul gives a clear answer, at least, to the question rather than just slam the other candidates. You know how I can tell he’s not serious about running for president? He’s not nearly interested enough in scoring cheap points against the other guys. He wants to actually answer the questions – a rare quality in a politician and something nobody who is serious about winning ever does.

6:34 PM. Gingrich is comparing investment size. He describes his as a tiny mouse and Romney’s as a giant elephant. Is this a pissing contest? Why yes…it is.

6:31 PM. Gingrich is indignant. Trying to spin his work as a lobbyist for Fannie by pointing out that Romney has investments in Fannie and Freddie. Sort of a big difference, though. Romney hits back by pointing out that Gingrich also has investments in Fannie and Freddie. Gingrich is off his game tonight. No opportunity to slam the media so far.

6:28 PM. Wolf Blitzer changes the subject from South America to housing. A question about phasing out Fannie and Freddie. This is a lovely softball.

6:25 PM. Santorum rises to the occasion. Hitting Obama on Honduras. Says we need to support freedom in South America. Ron Paul has another good answer to American force and arrogance. Santorum pretends like he doesn’t understand the history of American involvement in the region.

6:23 PM. A good answer on South America from Ron Paul. Paul gets very few cheers for promoting trade with Cuba. A Florida crowd, after all. But yes, we should expand free trade to as many South American countries as possible. Paul is forthright and honest as ever on the issue. Get ready for some tough talk on Cuba from the others.

6:21 PM. Now that I have the formatting figured out…so far I think Romney is scoring some points but he seems too outraged. I mean, how dare Gingrich call him anti-immigrant. Gingrich is hardly better, of course, but neither of them sound as hard-line as they have in previous states.

6:12 PM. Sorry, I meant to start this at the opening but between helping with kids, getting a beer, and technical difficulties I’m late to the game. Apparently I’ve been missing some immigration debate. There’s never much debate on this subject – at the moment we’re discussing the utterly absurd topic of “self-deportation.” It’s impossible to have this debate when the premise is so off the mark.


How Citizens United Helped Newt Gingrich And Hurt The Republican Party

Sheldon Adelson is the man behind Newt Gingrich's anti-establishment success

Newt Gingrich is a Washington insider but he’s not in the good graces of his party’s elite. And yet he manages to stay competitive in the GOP primary.

Jon Chait makes an interesting point about the competitiveness of the Gingrich campaign:

Money is the primary mechanism that parties use to herd voters toward the choices the elites would prefer them to make. The nomination of George W. Bush offers a classic example. Bush and his network had organized so many Republicans to donate so much money that the contest was essentially over well before a vote had been cast. The Bush fund-raising network didn’t involve a handful of billionaires in a room. It required thousands of fairly affluent people working together.

He points to the GOP marching orders on Gingrich:

If Gingrich does win, veteran GOP strategists tell CNN to expect pressure on Senate Minority Leaders Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner and other Republican leaders to call key GOP donors and ask them not to contribute to Gingrich’s campaign.

Chait notes that ten years ago “this sort of edict would have suffocated Gingrich. But under the present system, Gingrich can simply have a single extremely wealthy supporter, Sheldon Adelson, write a series of $5 million checks.”

Now I draw a very different conclusion than Chait from this. Here’s Chait:

Conservatives may not care much about the good-government problems that this scenario raises. (I care! Imagine a sitting President trying to make a fair judgment about a policy decision impacting the businessman who single-handedly financed his entire election.) But they may come to care about the problems arising from a system that now allows one very, very rich man with very, very poor political instincts to overturn their own best laid plans.

On the other hand, I’m sort of thrilled to see the duopoly threatened. Our two-party system really is a threat to American democracy. No power bases are more entrenched than the Democratic and Republican parties. Money be damned, if the party is going to unite around Bush in 2000 then McCain’s chances are null and void. In 2012, the rules have changed.

Is this the first crack in the GOP’s thick armor – an even more stunning change of fortune than the Tea Party sweep in 2010? I wrote recently about how Citizens United helped take at least a little power away from traditional media corporations. Is it also weakening the two-party grip on the political system? Could this be the beginning of the end for lesser-of-two-evils democracy in America?

To Chait’s fretting over good government, why should we be more concerned with the influence of one billionaire over the decisions of a hypothetical president Newt Gingrich than with the amassed influence of corporations over the Republican party itself? After all, if Gingrich did anything explicitly to help Sheldon Adelson we’d know about it rather quickly. Everyone would be paying close attention. But the machinations of the Republican party itself and the money which keeps the back-scratching mutual between the party and its benefactors is largely opaque – a perpetual process that, like breathing, we barely notice at all.

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Marco Rubio positions himself for a Romney ticket

Marco Rubio would be a smart veep pick for Romney

Rubio is a charming young congressional freshman and son of Cuban immigrants, is a popular conservative and  once-darling of the once-great Tea Party, and he’s taking Romney’s side in the Romney-Gingrich Florida fight:

In a Spanish-language ad airing in Florida paid for by the Gingrich campaign, Mitt Romney is called “the most anti-immigrant candidate.”

Sen. Marco Rubio blasted Newt Gingrich today for describing Romney that way. “This kind of language is more than just unfortunate,” Rubio told the Miami Herald. “It’s inaccurate, inflammatory, and doesn’t belong in this campaign.”

“The truth is that neither of these two men is anti-immigrant,” Rubio added. “Both are pro-legal immigration and both have positive messages that play well in the Hispanic community.”

Rubio has indicated he has no plans to endorse.

No plans to endorse, but this is still picking sides. Rubio would make a smart pick for Romney’s VP for numerous reasons. He’s more reliably conservative than Romney. He’s a good speaker, likable and eloquent. He’s young and good-looking. And he’s a minority who would appeal to that much-alienated Hispanic vote.

Is this his first move to position himself in Romney’s good graces? What happens if Newt wins Florida?

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Gingrich threatens to sit out next debate if audience can’t participate

Newt Gingrich is threatening to sit out the next debate

Want more proof that Gingrich’s entire shtick is completely dependent on riling up the audience? Look no further:

Mr. Gingrich, a former House speaker, on Tuesday morning threatened not participate in any future debates with audiences that have been instructed to be silent. That was the case on Monday, when Brian Williams of NBC News asked the audience of about 500 people who assembled for a debate in Tampa to hold their applause until the commercial breaks.

In an interview with the morning show “Fox and Friends,” Mr. Gingrich said NBC’s rules amounted to stifling free speech. In what has become a standard line of attack for his anti-establishment campaign, Mr. Gingrich blamed the media for trying to silence a dissenting point of view.

“I wish in retrospect I’d protested when Brian Williams took them out of it because I think it’s wrong,” Mr. Gingrich said. “And I think he took them out of it because the media is terrified that the audience is going to side with the candidates against the media, which is what they’ve done in every debate.”

I don’t blame him for being upset. His extraordinary victory in South Carolina was built on the back of his demagoguery there in the debates. Newt managed to whip up the crowd’s anger and frustration into a frothy mix of, er, well fervor. Fast-forward to the last Florida debate and Newt was off his game. No whooping or cheering from the audience. No opening to stick it to Brian Williams. And the former speaker fell on his face, taking blow after blow from Romney.

Could Newt actually sit out the next debate? I don’t buy it. It’s a lot of sound and fury from a man who expects such a threat will move mountains. And perhaps it will. The networks want to put on a good show. This is reality television at its very best. Why not let the crowd run wild?

This isn’t 1980, after all. We’re not watching Reagan debate Carter. We’re just watching a bunch of guys who want to be Reagan debate each other so that they can beat the “worst president since Carter” or some such nonsense.

Doug Mataconis has more.

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Is Mitch Daniels giving the SOTU response to sabotage all this presidential speculation?

Mitch Daniels is not really presidential in any way.

At Library Grape, Lev makes a smart observation:

Mitch Daniels is the man of the moment—he’s been selected to respond to Barack Obama’s State Of The Union address, which essentially means that he’s about to kiss any sort of rising star status goodbye if history is any guide. And it should be: Daniels is soft-spoken and not terribly magnetic, and my hunch is that the Republicans devoutly wishing he’d gotten in will not be wishing it this time tomorrow. SOTU responses are a lose-lose situation, the only decent ones in recent years were (1) the one given by Sen. Jim Webb in 2007, which was packed with gravitas, toughness, and dignity, and (2) the one given by Gov. Bob McDonnell last year, which ramped up the cheesy atmospherics (cheering crowds, speaker walking down the aisle and shaking hands) to turn the whole thing into an ersatz State Of The Union, but which somehow worked because it turned the whole thing into a joke that McDonnell was entirely in on. It was actually kind of amazing to watch. Daniels, though, will likely shoot for the first and see his buzz evaporate faster than Bobby Jindal’s did

Frankly, I can’t for the life of me understand why the opposition still gives a response to the State of the Union. Everyone has already had to sit through a long, boring speech once. Now we have to sit through an even less meaningful speech? Seriously? Do we at least get free beer?

On a more serious note, Daniels must know this isn’t the proper forum for a soft-spoken guy like him. What gives? Maybe he knows that this will shatter any hopes that he’ll enter the race and can think of no better way to shake the speculation.

I’m still curious why so many on the right seem to think Daniels would make such a good candidate. He’s short, soft-spoken, and not particularly “presidential” in any sense of the word. Worse still, he can’t really appeal to the base. He has none of Newt’s flare. He’s good on some policies – prison reform, for instance – but he adds very little to the current line-up. Indeed, if he had run I suspect he would have already disappointed those calling for him to run now. Some other dream candidate would be hypothetical number one.

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Mitt Romney is the best Republican candidate to take on Barack Obama

In the first Florida debate, Romney got his groove back. (Image via CBS)

Romney bounced back in the first Florida debate, with a much-subdued Newt Gingrich on the defensive after his South Carolina win.

Part of the problem, argues Aaron Goldstein, was the silence of the crowd:

The debate audiences at NBC, CBS and ABC behave like they’re at a tennis match. The audiences at Fox News and CNN are far more expressive and that works to Newt’s advantage. A sedate audience like the one tonight at NBC doesn’t play to Newt’s strengths. I suspect Newt will fare better at Thursday night’s debate which airs on CNN. What will also help him is that the debate is co-sponsored by the Hispanic Leadership Network and Newt is perceived as more sympathetic to Hispanics than Romney.

I’m not sure Romney’s tax returns will actually hurt him that much. Yes, his earnings over two years top $45 million, but we knew he was rich already. Yes, his taxes are low, but we knew already how low capital gains taxes are compared to income tax rates. The wealth of hedge fun managers isn’t exactly breaking news.

Romney hasn’t handled any of this well, but it’s not damning. And frankly, the more I think about it, Republicans really need to realize something: Newt is a demagogue, and that may make people feel good – by letting Newt tap into that anger, conservatives allow themselves to feel validated. But Romney is a better candidate. He can appear soulless at times – heartless at other times. His personality isn’t exactly compelling.

But who else in this race has been a governor? Who else has a long private-sector track record? Who else can appeal to moderates?

Look, I’m with Andrew Sullivan in my admiration of Ron Paul, but I see him more as a prophet than a politician at this point. He’s railing against American empire, and seriously we should all thank him for that. But his campaign is a campaign against empire and against arrogance more than it is a campaign for president. I think Ron Paul knows this, which is why he says things like, “How can you be conservative and cut food stamps, but not cut a penny over-seas …?”

But let’s be honest: Ron Paul won’t be president. That’s not even the point of his campaign. This thing is between Romney and Gingrich, and Republicans would be making a really big, really tremendously bad mistake by nominating the former speaker.

To be quite honest, all these dream candidates people keep swooning over – Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, etc. – aren’t all that much different than Romney. Governors, somewhat more moderate than the vanguard of the conservative movement. The big difference is that they have no organization, they aren’t on any ballots, and they don’t have any money raised.

So let’s please quit it with the pining over things that will never be: Gingrich will never be president, nor will Ron Paul. None of these Republican “dream” candidates will live up to their dream status and they couldn’t get into the race at this point anyways. Once-dream-candidate Rick Perry was always just a more boring, less charming George W Bush. Romney is the best Republican remaining in the race – at least if the GOP wants to win this thing.

Me? I say Run Newt Run!

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Newt Gingrich and the politics of frustration

Jay Cost makes an astute observation:

Conservatives are very frustrated, and rightfully so. Their feeling is that they play by the rules – they work hard, pay their taxes, raise their kids right – but what do they get for it? Their values are mocked on television and the movies, the media castigates them as a bunch of extremists, they pay taxes while half of the country does not, and the Obama administration took to demagoguing them virtually from day one of his tenure. I know of what I speak – a few months back I was driving down the road and saw a sign in front of a business lamenting, “Where is the America I grew up in?” I nodded my head in approval.

Enter Newt Gingrich, the person on the debate stage who finally speaks truth to power. ‘Not so fast, John King!’ ‘Hold it just a damned minute, Diane Sawyer!’ ‘How dare you talk to me like that, Brian Williams!’ These are the sorts of thoughts that millions of conservatives have every week. And now here is Newt Gingrich actually saying it right to them. Never mind the fact that he is expressing indignation at liberals while sometimes offering not-so-conservative policies, or using it as a form of misdirection to turn attention away from his own questionable deeds. Conservatives everywhere love to hear somebody finally stick it to the elites.

This explains why they are excited about the prospect of an Obama-Gingrich debate. They love the thought of someone finally standing in front of Obama and saying, “How dare you, sir!”

The problem with Gingrich, of course, is that he comes with a cargo ship full of baggage – ideological, financial, and personal. Gingrich has made a career since leaving the House as a well-connected insider; he has bona fide ethical scandals on his resume. His personal life is a total mess, and he has turned off the broad middle of the country for the last 15 years. And on top of that, it’s doubtful that all of this outrage is genuine. Consider, for instance, Gingrich warmly complimenting John King after the CNN debate this week. How do we square that with King having done something so “close to despicable” just 120 minutes earlier?

You can’t because you can’t square Newt with Newt. He’s an imprint of the things conservatives want in a candidate, but he’s not in any way a good standard-bearer for the values and ideals which conservatives say they hold. He is merely a capsule for their anger and frustration. This is problematic for GOP voters. The question is whether they’ll realize this in time for the Florida primary.

I would quibble, naturally, with Jay’s argument that conservatives are “rightfully” frustrated. Is there really a reason for this? Huge strides have been made by conservative state governments across the country to turn back the clock on public labor unions, reproductive rights, and education spending. Meanwhile, taxes are lower than ever and the military is just about as big as ever. This secular-socialist-machine that Newt keeps warning about seems as much a figment of our imagination as anything else.

If anything, it’s civil libertarians and progressives who ought to be frustrated.

In terms of the broader culture, Jay does have a stronger footing. It’s true that conservatives are largely presented as caricatures in modern popular media, though this is far from universally so. Actually, I think the problem is that conservatives are trying too hard when it comes to pop culture. They want pop culture that explicitly advocates a conservative world view. Too often this leads to “conservative” films that are just awful, or bad Republican rap videos.

This is an unfortunate turn for conservatives in the arts. After all, many great works of conservative literature and music have been produced. The Lord of the Rings is in many ways a great tome of conservative fantasy (though perhaps a very different sort of “conservative” than what we have today.)

In any case, the politics of frustration certainly helps explain Newt’s appeal. Whether it will be enough to fuel him all the way to the convention is much harder to say. The conservatism of wanting-to-win might take over. In that case, Republicans will need to rally around Romney. Newt doesn’t stand a chance in the general, where the politics of frustration won’t play nearly as large a role.

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The Bearded Newt

C’mon, admit it. Newt is way more electable with the beard. He’s practically Santa Claus, and who doesn’t love Santa Claus?**

Put a top hat on this guy and stick a pipe in his mouth and you’ve got yourself a president.

Honestly, why have beards gone so out of fashion among our political elite? (Yes, Newt, you are part of the political elite.) I just don’t get it. Beards are dignified, presidential even. They lend an air of confidence and manliness that these post-Roman smooth-cheeked politicians simply can’t achieve.

Then again, I’m a dirty, bearded hippie. So I’m biased.


** Then again, Santa is all about redistribution of wealth. The toys and all that. For every child. No child left behind…

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Republicans pick man with three wives instead of Mormon in South Carolina primary

Newt Gingrich's secret South Carolina weapon was fear.

So Newt Gingrich has won the South Carolina primary.

In the course of a week he turned around his campaign, transforming a serious deficit into a 13 point win. South Carolina voters rejected Romney’s time at Bain Capital, his Mormon faith, and his insincerity. They turned, instead, to the disgraced former Speaker of the House, a man whose personal life is quite frankly enough to disqualify him from any possible general election run; whose statements over the past few years in regards to Obama, religious freedom, and other controversial issues place him not only on the far-right of the political spectrum, but among its worst elements.

Gingrich can pander like no other, but his personal and political past should be enough to rouse Republicans from whatever drunken stupor has led them to this precarious destination.

Admittedly, one state does not a nomination make, but Romney has never been so vulnerable.

“This is the Republican crack-up people have been predicting for years,” writes Andrew Sullivan. “Gingrich is on a roll. I think he can win this – and then lose this in a way that could change America history. That is a brief impression in one moment of time. But I cannot see Romney winning this at this point. They are just not into him, and he’s an awful candidate.”

The Republican Party “deserves its spokesman,” Andrew argues. “But do not under-estimate the appeal to some of the idea of humiliating and removing the first black president. That’s what Gingrich is really about. He is giving them what they want. And it’s meat that has barely seen a skillet.”

It’s remarkable, really. There’s a sort of debauchery to it, this willingness to follow whoever says the most extreme thing, whoever is willing to play the raging fool.

What is conservatism in this country? What has it become?

Corey Robin argues that it’s the politics of the perpetual reactionary. Conservatism here and in Europe has been the manifestation of the status quo reacting to the forces of change and progress. Sullivan argues that true conservatism is more a matter of disposition and temperament; that the true conservative seeks balance. In some ways, these are very much the same thing though Robin’s conservative is a revolutionary in reverse, and Sullivan’s is a force for stability. (I am suddenly reminded of Ra’s al Ghul and his reactionary League of Shadows…)

These days I see conservatism more as a bastion for fear of the Other than anything else. The Other is the crux of every conservative argument: fear of the immigrant other (Mexicans!); fear of the cultural other (Liberals and Elitists!); fear of the religious other (Muslims!); fear of the racial other (black people!); and so forth. Conservatism is a sort of protectionism that inhabits the minds of the fearful (and make no mistake, this tendency creeps up on the left at times as well.)

Conservatives believe that we must protect our borders, stop the flow of communism or radical Islam, etc., fight big government but not the entitlements that big government so graciously hands out to us. No wonder most conservatives want to keep the military strong and well funded when so much fear is at play. A conservative in the American sense is not interested so much in turning back the clock as he is in stopping it altogether.

This – this harnessing of fear and resentment – is what Newt has tapped into on the right and he’s done so better than anyone else – better than the bumbling Perry or the more mild-mannered Santorum. It doesn’t matter if he has a plan or if he’s lying through his teeth or if his past is littered with failures both moral and political. It doesn’t matter if he’s just another big government rightwinger in disguise, pandering to whatever shreds remain of the once mighty Tea Party. What matters is what he represent – he’s become, quite suddenly, an avatar for all this terror at the browning of America, at the financial crash, the poor labor market. He’s become Obama’s doppelganger.

Obama is all that is Other and Newt is that comforting swell of rage that accompanies it. In this sense, Newt’s very familiarity is a blessing when it ought to be a curse.

Why Newt and not Romney? Certainly Romney has taken a hard-line stance on everything. I’m not sure it’s his Mormonism so much as it is his insincerity. When Romney talks about Obama or the various issues conservatives have with Obama, he just isn’t convincing, even to a liberal like me. He sounds like a phony. (Like I’ve said before, he has no soul.) Gingrich, on the other hand, has plenty of soul, dried up thing though it may be, and he can access deeper emotional resonance in the GOP base. Romney’s anger is flat and papery. Gingrich may indeed only be a better actor, but he’s a method actor, and he pulls off the role he knows he needs to play.

Whether he can sustain it is another question. Gingrich comes with his own cartload of baggage and plenty of moderates in the GOP outside of South Carolina are just as nervous about the former speaker as they are about the former governor of Massachusetts. This game is far from finished.

What a glorious sport we’ve made of our political system.

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