By Kathleen Parker
WASHINGTON – “Anybody but Mitt” has become a familiar mantra throughout the Republican primary campaign. It is also weird and self-defeating.
Republicans apparently want to nominate anyone except the one person who can defeat Barack Obama. And for all the strangest reasons:
One: He’s changed his mind. True. He changed his mind, thus becoming more conservative.
Two: He’s too perfect.
Three: You can’t drink beer with him. Whatever.
The result of these petty obsessions has been a pathological flirtation with a parade of lesser candidates who could replace Romney. This parade has persisted despite polls consistently showing Romney as the most likely to defeat Obama. It continues even though it’s perfectly clear the White House worries most about Romney.
First came Rick Perry, who, now desperate for attention, has turned his sights on gays in the military and Obama’s “war on religion.” Next was Herman Cain, who, though he has suspended his campaign, seems unable to leave the stage.
Now it’s Newt Gingrich’s turn.
You don’t get more un-Romney than Gingrich. Imperfect and untidy, he’s the serial husband with whom anyone could feel comfortable sharing a beer. Or a keg. A sinner like the rest of us, he’s familiar and comfortable as an old sofa.
But no one other than Callista Gingrich thinks her husband can prevail in a general election. No. One. The consensus on Gingrich is so overwhelming that conventional wisdom has taken a holiday. That is, no one in Washington thinks he can win, and Washington is where Gingrich is known best. Instead of rallying to support him, former colleagues are going out of their way to politely say, “He can’t lead.”
Gingrich’s record of leadership is demonstrably erratic. He is, in the words of former Sen. Jim Talent, who served with Gingrich from 1993-1999, “unreliable.” Another insider speaking to me privately was blunter: “He’s unstable and everybody knows it, but no one wants to say it. Yes, he’s a genius and is respected for his many great ideas. But he’s Icarus. He flies too close to the sun.”
Examples of Gingrich’s unreliability are plentiful and soon will become familiar through political ads, including:
• Ethics violations when, just before he was sworn in as speaker of the House, Gingrich tried to cash in with a book contract. While campaigning even now, he’s lining his pockets with book sales, profits that supporters may mistakenly believe are going toward the campaign.
• Throwing Paul Ryan under the bus by calling Ryan’s Medicare reform plan “right-wing social engineering,” though Gingrich later recanted and said he would implement the plan as an option while keeping the current system in place.
• Accepting $1.6 million in consulting fees from Freddie Mac to help convince conservatives not to dismantle the mortgage company, even as he called people who supported Freddie criminals.
But this is Washington talking and too many Americans beyond the bubble don’t want to hear what Washington has to say. They prefer to hear Gingrich say, “I’d rather be effective representing the American people than be popular inside Washington.”
This is music to the ears of those who have come to loathe and distrust all things Washington, even though Gingrich is as much a Washington insider as anyone. And there’s a reason for his unpopularity. It isn’t because of his marriages or his Tiffany’s expense account. It is because his erratic behavior and his inability to resist the sound of his own voice have caused Republicans to lose too many fights.
Gingrich’s campaign may tell the larger tale. Thanks to poor management, he has been playing catch-up in Iowa. He accumulated massive debt during his high-flying early days of the campaign. Might voters extrapolate that as one runs a campaign, one may also run the country? By comparison, Romney’s campaign is a seamless, debt-free marvel of spreadsheets and bottom lines.
This is not to diminish Gingrich’s many good qualities, which even his detractors are eager to acknowledge. He is creative and stimulates fresh thinking. He is a unique legislator who knows history. He cuts a swath through any room and commands an audience as no other.
But when a man who intends to lead the country cannot marshal the loyalty of those he has attempted to lead before, voters might pay heed. Then again, if Republicans want to make Democrats happy, Gingrich is their man.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. She writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.