Roger’s Rules

Where I've been, and how Newt's coming

I’ve been hors de combat for the last week, lingering in one of those establishments Hans Castorp inhabited for so many months in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

I exaggerate slightly. I had’t been sleeping out under the stars with our unhygienic friends at OccupyFatuousness, so I haven’t come down with TB, “Zucotti Lung,” or any of the other maladies to which carelessness, ridiculous political posturing, and bad sanitation are heir to.

No it was an ordinary case of appendicitis–well, not entirely ordinary, since the blasted thing had ruptured before I sat down for a free and frank discussion with the pleasant doctor from a local emergency room. He, scrutinizing the Kimball interior as portrayed by a CAT scan, was quick to introduce me to his good friend, the surgeon, before resuming his search for the victims of motorcycle accidents, drug overdoses, and whatever else emergency-room doctors do to beguile an idle hour.

I speak lightly, but it would be paltering with the truth to say that I have been at my chirpiest this past week. I won’t burden you with the details. It should indeed be a guide to aspiring novelists and other romantics that there are plenty of things that may be vividly present to your experience which, when worked up into narrative shape, bore the pants off your audience. Beach the Butler, of Blandings Castle fame, found this to be incontrovertibly true whenever he collared a guest and began on the saga of the lining of his stomach. The story failed to grip, and it wasn’t two minutes before even the most sympathetic soul was shuffling his feet and wondering how he could contrive to be elsewhere.

Anyway, Beach, though a sensitive soul, dilated on the physical or material side of the plight. The Engineer Hans Castorp embodied one of the signal spiritual coefficients of protracted illness. It has to do with the experience of time. An hour, a morning, seems to take forever to battle through. Could an afternoon take longer to drain away? But suddenly days, weeks, months have slipped by without anyone’s have noticed. I’m home now. And I wasn’t cooped up anywhere near as long as Hans Castorp was. But already after several days the curious dispensation of illness, leaved by a compact of boredom and debility, has given a strange sponginess to my experience of the day’s unfolding.

Not that I was beyond noticing things. The GOP debates, for example. Or Herman Cain’s women trouble. Or sudden shift upwards in the political fortunes of Newt Gingrich. Back on November 4, I emailed a pal suggesting that I was almost ready to embrace Newt as the “sole plausible possibility.” The next day, Byron York reported that Newt had “won big” in Iowa. On November 9, Dorothy Rabinowitz explained in The Wall Street Street Journal “Why Gingrich Could Win.” “I think I can represent American exceptionalism, free enterprise, the rights of private property and the Constitution,” Gingrich said, describing the sort of debates he looked forward to if he were the nominee, “better than [Obama] can represent class warfare, bureaucratic socialism, weakness in foreign policy, and total confusion in the economy.”

Others are thinking so, too. Also on November 9, Steven Hayward weighed in on Powerline with “The Case for Newt.”

Now let me acknowledge, what I’ve said before in this space, that if it came down to it, I’d vote for Mitt Romney. Indeed, if it came down to it, I’d campaign vigorously for him (at least, I’d be vigorous against his opponent). But, my, what a page out of politics-as-stasis. As I’ve said in this space before, Mitt Romney is our Bob Dole, a company man at a moment when the problem is the company. We are living through a serious crisis–really, multiple crises — and many people look at old Mr. Business-as-usual, “is-it-my-turn yet?” Romney and wonder whether he is really up to the job. He deploys a sly, knowing smile when Rick Perry forgets how to count from 1 to 3. He certainly has competent hair — the most competent, I think, of the entire campaign. But what, besides competent hair, can be said for him? That he’s not Obama — true enough, and that fact should not be minimized. BUt think of the relatively small proportion of people who are Obama. That cannot be the distinguishing feature of the successful Republican candidate. What we need is vigor, leadership, and wisdom, not the path of least resistance dolled up with an attractive herbaceous border.

Not, I hasten to add, that I don’t worry about Newt. He is far and away the brightest of the contenders. Anyone who has listening to the debates will have grasped that in 30 seconds. And what a pleasure to discover that he is not only bright but also articulate and that he understands and embraces the principles of limited government. But — and it’s a big “but” — he is (at least, he has been) erratic. The attack on Paul Ryan. The support of cap-n-trade, global warming hysteria, etc. He’s taken it back, as categorically as it is possible to do so in some cases. But those aberrations, like several of his ill-fated initiatives as Speaker, underscore an abiding issue for Newt: his weakness as a tactical politician. He often underestimates, or at misjudged, the opposition. He needs to be aware of and provide for that — something his native intelligence will recoil from.

The other big thing for Newt, of course, is his personal baggage. How will that play? I confess I do not understand subtle alchemy that makes it OK (e.g) for Clinton to be the priapic moral midget he was and Obama to be the redistributionis pal of folks like Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayres while Herman Cain finds himself toast because of a couple of disgruntled women whose complaints, whatever they were, were settled (!) years ago? Some politicians get plenary indulgences, others don’t. It’s not invariable, but I notice that many who sport an “R” before their state fall into the “no indulgences” camp. The MSM, I would be willing to bet, won’t cut Newt a thimble’s worth of slack.

The big difference this time is the rise of a powerful alternative media in the shape of the blogosphere, which will play an even more important role in 2012 than it did in 2008. One more thing: the maturation of the most important and hopeful political phenomenon of our time, the tea party, will make a huge difference. The political awakening of mom and pop who, though they may not have thought much about James Madison previously, suddenly discover that the principles articulated by the Founders were 1. Inestimably valuable and 2. Under siege as never before. Those two things, the new media and the evolution of the tea party from a curiosity into an important political force, may just save Newt from himself. Like many others, I was ready months ago to declare his campaign at an end. I was wrong. Let’s see whether his wisdom and articulateness on behalf on individual liberty and limited government are enough to garner him the nomination. From where I sit, Newt looks to be our last non-business-as-usual choice. He is beginning to round up some impressive support for a campaign in which, as he said, resembles nothing so much as the the story of the tortoise and the hare. Mitt Romney is every establishment conservative’s first choice. Why? “Because he can win.” Can he ? That’s the universal answer. I’m not at all sure the confidence is justified. But now that we approach the 11th hour, it seems worth pondering whether the more intelligent alternative not also be the most likely one. Newt is hardly above criticism. Nor, as he showed in 1994, is he above winning, a capacity that, at the end of the day, we’ll all want to place a premium.