Newt’s amnesiacs

    The prediction game has always been treacherous. Witness ABC News’ documentary, aired in November 1962 and entitled “The Political Obituary of Richard Nixon,” a solid piece of conventional wisdom that was rendered moot six years later when Nixon rose from the dead to win the White House.And here’s what the conventional wisdom looked like in the spring of 2011: House Republican leader Eric Cantor said that Newt Gingrich’s candidacy was essentially “finished.” Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer said of Newt, “He’s done.” Republican commentator and ex-Gingrich aide Rich Galen likened his old boss’ candidacy to “an airliner with no wings, no engines, and no landing gear.”There was also a guy who dismissed Newt as “dead man talking.” That was me.But Newt now seems to have refuted the novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous quip that “there are no second acts in American lives.” When Newt was down, he alone foresaw an upward trajectory. Apparently he preferred this Fitzgerald dictum: “Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.”According to a flurry of new polls released yesterday, Newt’s act has been renewed. He has risen from the ashes of his springtime implosion, when at least 16 top staffers walked out on him. He has vaulted past the clueless Herman Cain and the hapless Rick Perry to become the newest favorite of the not-Mitt constituency. He has also been helped by the debates, due to his ability to string together coherent sentences and disport himself as the smartest person on stage. (The debates have also afforded him free publicity, a priceless asset for a guy whose campaign ledger was bleeding red ink at the end of last month.)Whether his boomlet can be sustained is, of course, another matter entirely. It’s not as if the Romney-averse Republicans have suddenly awoken to discover that a cross between Cicero and Reagan has been living in their midst. No, Newt has risen largely by default. If Perry hadn’t turned out to be such a bust, if Cain hadn’t been ensnared by scandal and exposed as a know-nothing, if Michele Bachmann hadn’t revealed herself to be serially fact-challenged, and indeed if any of the GOP’s heavy-hitting governors had agreed to take the plunge, then we’d probably look like seers today for having decreed Newt dead last May.Bottom line? Newt’s ascendance to flavor of the month (or week) is not really about Newt at all. He’s just a symptom of the extreme volatility of this Republican race. Seventy-five percent of grassroots Republicans are so anxious to resist Romney that they will audition just about anybody else (except Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, or Jon Huntsman) – to the point where they’re willing to forget all the things about Newt that they didn’t like.It’s amazing what willful amnesia can accomplish. Just last spring, conservatives went bonkers when Newt assailed Paul Ryan’s kill-Medicare plan as “right-wing social engineering,” and when he remarked that “all of us have a responsibility to pay for health care” (remember, the ’90s Newt argued in favor of requiring Americans to buy health coverage – the centerpiece of today’s health reform law). And it wasn’t long ago that conservatives were turned off by Newt’s multiple marriages (whereas, apparently, Newt’s three marriages are now deemed more acceptable than Cain’s three sex harassment accusations).The really weird thing, however, is that the Romney skeptics, in their search for a credible outsider with no Washington taint, have wound up flocking (at least for the moment) to a veteran Washington insider. Newt has been around the Washington power game decades longer than Barack Obama. His track record inside the Beltway dates back to the disco era. And, lest the newly besotted conservatives forget (which they apparently have), Newt as House Speaker was frequently attacked by the Republican right as insufficiently conservative. Among other sins, he cut budget deals with Bill Clinton and defended the National Endowment for the Arts. He ticked off the House conservatives so much that they tried to topple him from the Speaker’s chair in 1997.The coup failed, but Newt managed to topple himself a year later, when he championed the impeachment drive against Clinton while simultaneously conducting his own extra-marital affair. His impeachment zeal turned off the voters, who rewarded the Democrats in the ’98 midterm elections – thereby prompting Newt’s resignation from the House.Newt’s boomleteers seem eager to wipe his slate clean, but the big question is whether they’ll remain so oblivious once the inevitable scrutiny is ratcheted up. Indeed, the process has already begun. In Iowa yesterday, an anti-Newt flier, sponsored by the “Iowans for Christian Leaders in Government,” assailed his three marriages, questioned his fealty to God, and sought to tell people that Newt had served divorce papers on wife number one while she was recovering from cancer surgery. And Newt is still trying to mop up after himself, declaring this morning, “I’ve had moments in my life that I regret.”Will Newt’s new fans stay loyal and sustain his poll status? Are they so enamored of his debate performances (they apparently think he’d match up well against Barack Obama) that they will happily overlook his inconvenient history? If the not-Mitt crowd chooses to wallow in amnesia, it will merely confirm what F. Scott Fitzgerald once said about the fine art of forgetting:”It is sadder to find the past again, and find it inadequate to the present.”——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.