His surging polls notwithstanding, I'm stunned by the idea that Newt Gingrich might win the South Carolina primary. Until just recently, electability has been the GOP watchword. Tilting to Gingrich would be sheer masochism. His ethical lapses are legion. His own people drove him from the House speakership. In national polls, his negatives are astonishingly high. If he really cared about his party, the decent thing would've been not to run at all. Gingrich's mentor Richard Nixon stayed away from every GOP convention after his 1974 resignation until his death 20 years later. He didn't want to make his unpopularity the story. He didn't want it to be all about him.
Gingrich has no such scruples. He's been acting out since Mitt Romney thrashed him in the Iowa caucuses, though impotently at first as his rage got the better of him. His super-PAC erred by producing an inaccurate hard-left critique of Romney's business practices. While history teacher Gingrich knows all about the power of the big lie, this first outing backfired. He had been in much better form preparing to run in 2010, when he cunningly appealed to some Americans' worst instincts by comparing Muslims to Nazis. His former colleague Joe Scarborough called it hate speech. He never apologized for that rhetorical atrocity and issued a tepid disavowal of the Romney attack only after party elites and even rival Rick Santorum made him look silly for having a PAC that was feeding ammunition to President Obama.
Gingrich got his mojo back once his self-righteousness cooled and hardened. He stood on a stage in South Carolina and attacked a black journalist for asking him in all reasonableness to defend calling a black commander-in-chief the food stamp president. This week he attacked another journalist to deflect a legitimate question about his poor behavior toward one of the two women he'd pledged to love in health but abandoned in sickness. What makes Gingrich's personal life relevant in a presidential debate is that it helps illuminate the kind of man he is -- egotistical, undifferentiated, vengeful, and selfish, all poor indicators of an effective executive and especially presidential temperament. You only have to listen to what he says to appreciate the dangerous extent of his self-adoration.
He has spent the last two and a half weeks doing to his party exactly what he does to his women. Party leaders are now trying desparately to forestall the catastrophe of his coming within reach of being nominated. But these nutty elections of ours are decided by voters, not elites. If South Carolina Republicans are seduced into codependency by his dulcet tones and corrosive narcissism, if Florida follows where they lead, and if their nomination process is plunged into Newtonian chaos as a result, then their party deserves to lose. If he's nominated, it had better.