South Carolina is a womb. (Bear with me on this one.) Everybody knows the Iowa caucuses are a farce—that barely anybody votes and that Iowa voters are notoriously vain and will honor the candidate who humiliates himself with the most eagerness at their feet—and that the New Hampshire primaries usually choose the most sensible candidate.
The most sensible candidate rarely debases himself with the most vigor in Iowa, and so the media frames the New Hampshire results as a surprise reversal of fortune in an effort to keep the viewing public interested.
But you take the Iowa results and the New Hampshire results and then you toss them into South Carolina and some kind of demon magic happens. South Carolina's politics are so humid, so fetid and bloody and nasty and visceral, that for the last 32 years, whoever won there has gone on to win the Republican nomination. "South Carolina picks presidents," the local cliché goes, as though South Carolina voters have some sort of second sight. The truth is that the race just gets so mean by the time you get to South Carolina that all the losers—the schmucks who start to believe their own hype about playing fair, the mooks who are too dumb to get vicious at just the right moment, the morons who go negative at just the wrong time—fade away. What you're left with, after a candidate has spent a week or two metastasizing in South Carolina, is a Real Candidate, stripped of the lofty airs of Iowa and the earthy practicality of New Hampshire. You've got an organism highly likely to weather the national campaign process ahead.
This year was no different: Everyone amped up the vileness in South Carolina. Newt Gingrich's repeated earlier promises to not go negative corroded away in the swampy air of South Carolina, and suddenly he was promoting a twenty-seven-and-a-half-minute-long documentary about Mitt Romney's time as a layoff baron for Bain Capital, a documentary constructed out of half-truths (even though the truth is terrible enough without any embellishments).
Then, on Saturday, January 21, everyone went to the polls, and out of all of the heat and effluvia and stench, a giant head emerged. Voters strained and squatted and pushed out everything they wanted to see in a presidential candidate: Someone as angry as they are, someone who hates Barack Obama as much as they do, someone as willing to complain as they are that America in the 21st century simply has not done enough for the benefit of the poor, put-upon Christian white male. Glistening in the spotlight when they had finished the brutal work of democracy was Newt Gingrich, as we'd never quite seen him before.
Fifteen years earlier to the day—on January 21, 1997—Newt Gingrich became the only House Speaker in history to be reprimanded and fined by the House of Representatives for ethical violations. (His crime was serious but unsexy: Gingrich provided the House Ethics Committee with false information about a pair of pet projects that violated federal tax laws. The House voted 395 to 28 in favor of the reprimand, which came with a $300,000 penalty.)
Now Gingrich stood, victorious, on a South Carolina stage and proceeded to give the best speech of his life. If you care at all about presidential politics, you've seen parts of the speech or at least read about it by now. The reason it was the best speech of Gingrich's life has nothing to do with the content of the speech—it was full of the kind of nasty lies that would push a fastidious fact-checker into a drunken car wreck. The speech's greatness was its pitch-perfect emotional resonance with the crowd of bloodthirsty Southern conservatives who, just a year ago, probably would have referred to themselves as members of the Tea Party. Gingrich allowed himself to be subsumed by the will of those people, and the conflagration that followed, the inferno of madness and self-righteous rage and hate, is the next logical step in the devolution of the Republican Party.
Gingrich's body language was alive with the usual smug self-satisfaction, but he wisely kept his soaring ego out of the evening. (A baby girl was losing her mind during much of Gingrich's speech, and occasionally you could see the lunar landscape of his face flash with annoyance at her squealing tears. On a different night, if he weren't in such a good mood, Gingrich would no doubt have finger-wagged at the child for spoiling his "grandiose" comments—perhaps he'd refer to it as a "seminal moment in American political history"—with her caterwauling over a shitty diaper.) Early on in the speech, he referred to his 12-point victory over Mitt Romney in South Carolina as "humbling," and he continued to beat himself with the humble stick throughout the evening—"we" won tonight, "we" will go to "Warshington," "we" have to stop President Obama. "It's not that I'm a good debater, it's that I articulate the deepest-felt" values of the American people, Gingrich said, even though you know he considers himself a great debater.
He railed against the "elites in Washington and New York," in a way finishing the speech Sarah Palin started at the Republican National Convention in 2008. Gingrich had the crowd baying for 20 full minutes, occasionally chanting "U! S! A! U! S! A!" the way everyone used to after 9/11. He responded to the U! S! A! chants by saying, "You sort of just captured the heart of this campaign." Everybody in the room made a conscious decision to ignore the casual condescension of that remark, the stuffy, professorial delivery of all his lines, and the glaring fact that Gingrich is the very definition of a Washington elite—who else has a half-million-dollar line of credit at Tiffany's if not a member of the elite? Who but a member of the elite could have looted Freddie Mac of roughly $1.6 million in consulting fees right before the housing market shat itself? But everyone in that room decided right then to ride along with the sheer what-the-hellishness of a Populist Newton Leroy Gingrich campaign.
It was all Obama-bashing, all the time. He used every conservative line except the crazy birth-certificate ones, going so far as to accuse the president who killed Osama bin Laden of making "[Jimmy] Carter look strong." He blamed Obama's government for "growing anti-religious" bigotry and announced that a Gingrich presidency would be devoted to "eliminat[ing] anti-religious bigots." He lamented Obama's bowing to a Saudi king, even though you know Gingrich has seen the photos of George W. Bush literally strolling hand-in-hand with those same people. He promised to eliminate all of the White House czars despite the fact that Ronald Reagan, as Gingrich obviously knows, popularized the czar system. But who cares about the truth when you have feelings? What mattered was driving the audience to a wild froth. Occasionally, the crowd's emotions even escaped Gingrich's control and ran wild over him: His standard stump-speech line calling Obama "the biggest food-stamp president in American history" provoked anti-Obama howls that nearly drowned out Gingrich's standard next line promising to be "the best paycheck American president."
When Gingrich said he wanted to pick up Rick Perry's mantle of returning "power to the states," he had to be saying that just because he knew it'd play well in the conservative South. And his smarmy desire to help our country "remain the historic America" appealed to everyone who thinks some nonexistent point in American history was the ideal moment—back when teenagers never had sex, underwear stayed on the inside, and neighborhoods were safe from... er... unsavory elements like... oh, you know... those people. Even though Newt Gingrich knows that it's not possible to travel back in time to some dimwitted idyll that never existed, he still promised just that to South Carolina. Because that's what gets votes. And goddamnit, Newt Gingrich is tired of not getting votes.
As for Mitt Romney? For some reason, the guy has always reminded me of Tom Cruise, and I never could figure out exactly why that was. It's not that both men have made People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People list, even though they have; or that both men belong to religions that creep everyone else out, even though they do; or that both men are ridiculously wealthy and unnaturally moisturized, even though they are. It wasn't until watching Romney's South Carolina concession speech that I finally realized what it was about him that made me think of Cruise.
In all his movies and, more importantly for our purposes, in all his talk show appearances, Cruise only comes in one flavor—INTENSE. Even when he's not gibbering up and down on an overstuffed settee, he's staring directly at the person he's talking to, his jaw clenched, his eyes smoky and penetrative. He can't make jokes, because jokes are born of nuance and self-understanding, and Tom Cruise doesn't have time for any of that shit. He's busy being Tom Cruise all the goddamned time, and the only thing harder than being Tom Cruise all the time is being Tom Cruise when he's pretending to interact with other human beings.
For the last six years, Romney has set his formidable brain to one task: become the perfect Republican presidential candidate. He's surrounded himself with the best political team money can buy. He's financed extensive surveys of early primary states, he's paid experts ridiculous sums of money to run scenarios for every single eventuality that could occur in the 2012 campaign, and he's in all likelihood dropped exorbitant sums of money in the laps of branding experts to tell him at what angle he should hold the microphone away from his body to look most presidential.
But like Tom Cruise, Mitt Romney gets lost in the Uncanny Valley because his outsize ambition blinds him. He's spending all of his time thinking about what a perfect presidential candidate should say and look like and do rather than being a presidential candidate.
His speech was terrible and not at all lifelike. He accused people who attack him—Gingrich—as promoting "a frontal assault on free enterprise," adding that we expected it from Obama but not from within his party. Then he promised to fight "in every state" and offered the same tired menu of tepid platitudes he's offered up at every other speech and debate. And then he was done.
When you're standing in front of a crowd of people who worked hard for you and believed in you, and you let them down as badly as Romney let down that roomful of people in South Carolina, it's appropriate to appear slightly chastised, maybe even angry. You should promise to correct your mistakes and charge on into the fray, because you've learned the hard lessons here in South Carolina. You should give something significant of yourself up in the speech as a kind of sacrifice to the people, and then you should emerge with a vow to be stronger than before. A disillusioned crowd like the one Romney faced is just begging for a retribution story. Romney didn't recognize that because the people don't matter to him. The speech doesn't matter to him. All that matters is seizing the nomination, and in the mechanical mind of Mitt Romney, what he needs to do to seize the nomination is to stick to the plan he's spent so much time and money on.
In the coming days, we'll see Mitt Romney readjust at the behest of his pollsters. It will probably be awkward to watch until he gets the hang of it, but then it'll become just as rote as everything else out of Romney's mouth. The tack he'll probably take is a series of attacks on Newt Gingrich. These attacks will be precise and technically perfect. But they probably won't work, because Romney will deliver them with the same robot cadence in which he steals Ronald Reagan's "shining city on a hill" line at the end of every one of his speeches.
What Romney won't do—what the people want him to do—is get seriously mad. The quarter-billionaire can sneer all he wants at European values, but he can't make the base believe he really doesn't like European values (Romney speaks fluent French, as Gingrich's ads giddily remind you). He can't put on a show of blood and thunder the way Gingrich did in South Carolina. To Romney's mind, it's unbecoming of a presidential candidate. It's not how he's been programmed to act.
Make no mistake, Romney still has the upper hand in all this. His campaign has been actively pursuing absentee ballots in Florida, so he already has a sizable lead over Gingrich there. Whereas the Gingrich campaign is winging it, Romney has invested the most in a national structure and has been planning from day one to fight a national primary campaign. And, again, he's bought a team of experts unparalleled in American politics.
Or, not quite unparalleled. Romney's team of Bush experts bears some striking similarities to Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign. He's got all the right endorsements, just like Clinton had. He's got the party faithful in his pocket, just like Clinton had. Whereas faithful Clinton family friend James Carville was barely disguising pro-Clinton talking points as semi-impartial commentary on CNN in 2008, now Karl Rove is out-and-out making the case for Romney on Fox News. In place of Bill Clinton's passionate, controversial commentary, insert Teabaggy New Jersey Governor Chris Christie as the Romney advocate. The more you look, the more the Hillary Clinton comparison makes sense. Clinton ran as the inevitable candidate, much the way Romney is, and in doing so she came off as an automaton. Obama styled himself as the transformational candidate, the candidate who appealed to his party's higher emotions, the candidate who knew how people felt.
Wouldn't it be something if Gingrich managed to ascend to the Republican Party nomination by running a fractured mirror of Obama's emotional 2008 Democratic campaign? Instead of hope and change, insert a particularly virulent strain of anti-Obama fear and loathing. Rather than an army of empowered young people, Gingrich has successfully animated the angry remains of the Tea Party. If Gingrich makes Romney's polished organization a flaw rather than a strength, it's possible he could pull off a coup.
Granted, the race has been wildly volatile, and granted, there is probably a calamitous fall in Newt Gingrich's future, based on the pattern we've seen so far. But his peak in South Carolina sure was an impressive one, and he might not be done peaking just yet.