Run, Newt, Run!

What a joy to behold, the headline from the Washington Times, the right-wing newspaper in our nation's capital: "Gingrich seeks donors for GOP bid."

Just as the presidential race appeared to be veering toward a New York showdown, along comes former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to do what he does best: threaten to toss a monkey wrench into the works.

Indeed, as the media promoted President Bush's spoken contention that New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton will be the Democratic presidential nominee, and his unspoken but heavily hinted bet that former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani will be the Republican one (via the nomination of a Giuliani adviser to run a Justice Department charged with enforcing voting rights), I despaired at the thought of such a contest. Too much New York, too much 9/11. Then along came Newt to put the fun back in the race.

Should Hillary live up to the president's prediction (and I've yet to count out Sen. Barack Obama) and Newt become the GOP standard-bearer, you'd have a race in which the foes know each other very well, and one in which Gingrich's negatives could potentially cancel out Clinton's. Like Giuliani, Gingrich has been married more than once, and has cheated on at least one wife. But in a sordid twist, Gingrich announced his plan to divorce wife number one, Jackie Battley, while she was recovering from cancer surgery, according to the first Mrs. Gingrich.

His confession of having had an affair while married to wife number two (who was suffering from multiple sclerosis) was made on video to James Dobson, the sourpuss who runs the Focus on the Family, right-wing Christian media empire. (According to Marianne Gingrich, the second Mrs. G., the former speaker announced his intention to divorce her shortly after she was diagnosed with MS.) Even those who disparage Hillary Clinton for standing by her philandering man throughout the Clintons' long marriage would have a hard time justifying the serial dumping of ailing spouses by the philandering Gingrich, no matter how big his ideas.

Worries about controversial donors to the Clinton campaign could be virtually wiped out by reminders of Gingrich's use of tax-exempt funds to advance his political career, a game that got him reprimanded in 1997 by the House Ethics Committee, ultimately leading to the end of his tenure as speaker.

But the reason I most love the notion of Newt as the GOP presidential nominee is his blatant pandering to the right, whose foot-soldiers may be less inclined to accept his overtures, now that several of their moralistic Republican heroes have shown themselves to be less than honest with the electorate.

Gingrich, for instance, is as crazy for dinosaurs as any Garanimals-wearing, juice-box sipping product of the day-care culture, yet that doesn't keep him from embracing the teaching of creationism in public schools. I saw him do this in New Hampshire in 1995 during his first test-drive of a presidential bid. There, a local school board had been taken over by religious fundamentalists who were trying to introduce the biblical account of creation into the science curriculum of a school district in a town where many of the citizens worked in the high-tech sector.

"I think you can certainly refer to both creationism and evolution as something that people ought to be aware of -- together," Gingrich told me at a press conference in Manchester, N.H. "If you look at chaos theory and the degree to which the certainty of the 19th century is beginning to be replaced, I don't think there's any problem with teaching both."

(That quote enough is reason enough for me to want Gingrich as the GOP nominee. I plan to flog it 'til it's well past dead.)

I don't want to suggest that Gingrich would be easy to defeat. He's a crafty fellow, after all, and his grandiosity sometimes pans out into actual victory. But defeating Giuliani would be just as difficult, and watching the Dems embark on that mission would be a lot less fun to watch.

The larger question, of course, will be called if Gingrich manages to meet the fund-raising threshold of $30 million he's set for himself in the next three weeks: What on earth has happened to the mighty Republican Party? With Dobson's recent dis of former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and his apparent embrace of Gingrich earlier this year, the would-be king-maker of Colorado Springs has picked a fight with another heavyweight in the religious-right sweepstakes, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, who supports Thompson.

With the leaders of the base divided even as the rest of the party lacks cohesion, an entrance by Gingrich on the heels of a prodigious fund-raising drive would speak loudly of the GOP's mission drift. If a disgraced former speaker -- a marriage cheat, at that -- is the great hope of God's Own Party, well, the pickins have got to be pretty slim. Yet, before they get too giddy at the sad state of the party of Lincoln, Democrats would do well to take in the implications of an angry base and a party that fails to maintain a certain ideological consistency.

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