In movies like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Dave,” a simple man upstages the career politicians who run Washington.
From the start of this campaign season, Republicans have been refashioning this pleasing myth and taking it to alarming extremes, rallying around a series of dead-end kids whose candidacies, they hope, will expose the stupidity of the grown-ups who sent the country into a tailspin. Exhibits A through E: Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain.
It’s hard to imagine a gang less suited to the responsibilities of high office.
The most recent fantasy candidate is Cain, the former Washington lobbyist who plays the charming, unpredictable outsider. Cain seems barely to have bothered studying his goofy 9-9-9 tax plan (including the fact that it would impose a new sales tax on New Hampshire). He suggested that immigration could be fixed by an electrified fence (until he took the suggestion back, and then took back the taking-it-back). He mocked the importance of knowing who the president of “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan” is, and gravely worried that China, a nuclear power for the past half-century, might be developing nuclear capability. Cain could qualify as a repurposed “Dave.” He is definitely not “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”
But enough about Cain. He wasn’t going to be the nominee before the latest batch of sexual harassment charges surfaced -- there are four or five at last count -- and he isn’t going to be it now. But with two months to go before the first primaries, there’s plenty of time for Republicans to find a new infatuation and to insist, yet again, that they will never come around to embracing the establishment’s choice, Mitt Romney.
With the television ad wars beginning, Perry, the Texas governor, could be a player again. He is spending more than $400,000 a week now introducing himself to Iowans. Depending on how much anonymous money has flowed into the super PAC backing his campaign, many millions more in Perry ads could hit the air in the weeks ahead. In the scripted environment of a studio, free of the demands of thinking his own thoughts, Perry looks almost presidential. He needs only thrust out his chin and look off into the horizon, while the paid voice of God intones his accomplishments and promises more wonders in the future.
Before long, however, either Perry, the super PAC or both will go negative in an effort to weaken Romney. Romney may well be damaged by the attacks. But that doesn’t mean Perry, who has been an unqualified disaster on the campaign trail, will necessarily be the beneficiary. If the pattern holds, Republicans will instead fall temporarily in love anew. They will hunger for yet another political virgin.
I admit that Newt Gingrich is an unlikely virgin. He’s famously undisciplined -- as his multiple marriages suggest. He has little money, was abandoned by his staff and probably never expected to be seriously considered for the nomination. On his way to the recent Bloomberg-Washington Post debate in Hanover, New Hampshire, Gingrich traveled alone, getting his own coffee, carrying his own suitcase and shaking any hand he could grab hold of.
By default, the former speaker of the House has turned himself into a rookie. What could be more perfect for this year’s Republicans? Besides, more than anyone, it’s Gingrich who laid the groundwork for the unrelenting partisan warfare that comforts conservatives, reassuring them that their side isn’t surrendering to what Gingrich ominously calls the “secular socialist machine.”
Speaking in Paragraphs
Gingrich, who had been languishing in single digits, recently began climbing toward the teens in national polls. He now has enough contributions coming in to finance a nine-person office in South Carolina, which he opened this week. As long as debates continue to matter, Gingrich, who can talk in paragraphs, benefits from a schedule stuffed with them.
And he can still fire up a conservative crowd in ways Romney can only dream of. At the Reagan Dinner on Nov. 4 before 1,000 party faithful at Hy-Vee Hall in Des Moines, he was the star of the night. At a joint appearance with Cain on Nov. 5, hosted by the Texas Tea Party Patriots, he charmed the audience in what was billed as a “Lincoln-Douglas” style debate, embracing the high pretensions of the format without letting it crimp his pandering. Gingrich used the occasion to court Cain’s admirers, just in case, God forbid, something should happen to Cain on the way to the nomination.
For the moment, Gingrich is in a sweet spot between being written off for dead and serving as the repository for all the hopes, grievances, dreams and death wishes of Republican activists. In the Republican version of the Hollywood script, Jimmy Stewart is not the bumpkin who outsmarts the crooks in the Senate, nor is it Dave and his friend, the accountant Murray Blum, who nearly balance the budget in a single White House session. In this year’s Republican rewrite, Washington isn’t worth saving. And if the republic is doomed, what does it matter who becomes president?
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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