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The 2012 Election Circus — The Acts, The Players, The Hype

Newt Gingrich has a real genius for appearing erudite, wizened, and clever in a flippant sort of way on television. Where Romney talks in banalities and split-the-difference circumspection, Newt rattles off facts and figures about the Civil War and World War II, to lend perceived gravitas to arguments otherwise identical to the rest of the candidates. I can imagine Romney conducting a meeting at Bain, asking for input about a takeover, only to have member Gingrich give an exegesis about the Sherman Antitrust Act, not an in-depth one, mind you, but a 10-second reference before moving on to serial 5-second exegeses about Adam Smith, John Adams, and Abraham Lincoln -- with no effect on the issue at hand. The wide but shallow referencing is as impressive on television as it is often for no purpose.

I think Gingrich is a conservative, but he shares a liability common among conservatives of wishing to be considered an intellectual and in temperament moderate and accommodating -- in short, an intellectual’s loyal opponent and praised as such by the liberal establishment, the sort whom the New York Times or NPR might once or twice treat equitably. How else to explain his commercial with Nancy Pelosi, his cap-and-trade/green affectations, or his support for the individual mandate? His ego knows no bounds. He may well through sheer repetition convince voters that as a Republican back-bencher he engineered the Reagan Revolution, ended the Cold War and then as speaker for four years forced a clueless Clinton to balance the budget on his terms and then by his own genius ensured the 1990s boom. I've heard it so many times and so assuredly expressed, that by now I half believe it.

Mitt Romney

By now we all know his strengths and weaknesses. He is the most stable and judicious of the candidates. He looks presidential; his family is Rockwellian. He is a Mormon who, after five seconds of seeing and listening to him, might as well be a Methodist. His manners and graciousness and personal probity reflect the best of the American patrician class: George H.W. Bush fair play, hard work, and noblesse oblige.

But Romney is up against a go-for-broke Gingrich, who at one time would probably not have been allowed into a Romney country club. That means he has to get gritty, but in a way that by now unfortunately is not his nature and will probably come off as preppy-surly.

Gingrich told everyone that he was the proverbial tortoise who plods alone unnoticed before winning the race. In fact, he was the hare who rushed ahead with brilliant televised philosophizing only to wind up exhausted in scandal and self-inflicted buffoonery, only to sneak back. Romney is the plodder, raising money, building organization, at any given moment incapable of saying anything that would win him or lose him 10 points in the polls. He is the proverbial 4th-quarter, play-it-safe, run-out-the-clock coach who sits out a big lead, and who knows it will shrink, but might not shrink enough before the game ends — and finally who knows that he must, and may have the ability at some point to, pass deep, but still cannot quite take the risk.

"Do not take counsel of your fears" lectured Gen. Patton. Mr. Romney, remember your Danton: "Il nous faut de l'audace, encore de l'audace, toujours de l'audace!" Otherwise, we have a replay of the doomed Hillary campaign.

Rick Santorum

I am not sure that he is the most conservative of the candidates as he attests. Paul made points that today’s Pennsylvania senator naturally promotes union interests, protectionist interests, and constituent interests that are perfectly legitimate, but easily caricatured as not all that different from his liberal colleagues. His early petulance (that went something like “why is this race so unfair that my sincere message is not getting out?") has mostly vanished with his rise in the polls. Santorum is surely the most decent of the candidates; he has no apologies that his ideas on social conduct, abortion, homosexuality, and the family are more early 20th than 21st century. That appeals to conservative voters, even if there has probably been an illegitimacy, an abortion, or a gay person in their extended family. In the end he leaves you puzzled, perhaps hoping that his Santorum world of 1960 might somehow be restored, but bewildered at the very thought of how such a multi-theater war could ever be fought, much less won.