The Tao of Newt.

Newt Gingrich, the Republican Party's "man of ideas," has been all over the place in the last couple of days, coming up with inventive new arguments against health reform.

First, he said that the attempt to pass reform constituted "suicidal hubris" on the part of Democrats, particularly since congressional staffers "who have never had a real job, who spent their entire life being arrogant to visitors from back home" are incapable of writing legislation. Then, he took up the issue of passing a fix to health-care reform through reconciliation, in which the Senate, like the House, would pass the bill when -- cover the children's ears -- a majority of the chamber's members voted for it. This is apparently an unconscionable act in a democracy, and Newt is sure that good Americans won't stand for it: "The United States is not going to tolerate a group of people trying apply kind of a Hugo Chavez majoritarian rule in the Senate," he said.

You're only tempted to point out that Newt was never an opponent of reconciliation when it was being used for things like the Bush tax cuts or the Bush prescription drug plan if you don't know much about the way Newt debates. Newt has a unique style of arguing, one which we might call rhetoric in extremis. He never simply disagrees with something -- if he disagrees, then the thing he disagrees with is the worst thing witnessed in our lifetimes. If Newt stubs his toe, he will say that no man in human history has suffered such agony. Newt has never met an adjective he couldn't heighten to the 12th degree.

But you'll notice that he doesn't say this with spittle flying. He has a very even tone, whether he's saying that ordinary legislative moves are the stuff of brutal tyranny, or claiming that when Nancy Pelosi criticized the CIA, she had "disqualified herself to be Speaker" and should resign, (despite the fact that Gingrich himself had done the same), or detailing absurd conspiracy theories about Interpol. If you didn't understand English, you'd think he was the most reasonable of people. It's only when you listen to the words he says -- let's say, that as Americans "we are surrounded by paganism" -- that he sounds crazy.

When you're listening to it, it's tempting to worry that this combination of an authoritative tone and utterly absurd arguments could be very persuasive. Fortunately, that has never been the case. Newt was unpopular when he was Speaker, and has remained unpopular. Why he is still a sought-after voice on television is something of a mystery, but of course, places like the network Sunday shows bring on a whole parade of people -- from Liz Cheney to John McCain -- about whom one has to ask, "Why do I care what this person thinks?"

-- Paul Waldman

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