Monday, January 23, 2012

Playing the Field

As the decidedly unsexy presumptive frontrunner in the Republican primary race, Mitt Romney’s campaign has been banking that voter resignation will be strong enough to drag their candidate across the finish line. Touting “electability” as Romney’s chief mark of distinction in a field of comically flawed candidates, Romney veritably taunts his party’s faithful with his lack of political charisma. But by Romney’s calculations, love is overrated; he’s figuring Republicans will stand by their man simply because the risk of walking out on him is just too great.

But then that irresistible cad Newt Gingrich showed up, and now it’s anyone’s guess what will happen next. At first, it seemed like a harmless flirtation. But things have started to get serious now that questions have been raised about Romney’s penchant for firing people, let alone his refusal to release those tax returns. Romney’s campaign is starting to look downright infirm, and Republican voters want to play the field. Gingrich is down on one knee: Republican Party, will you open marry me?

And so it is that Newt Gingrich may emerge as the first man in American history to win office not in spite of having had extramarital affairs, but because of it. Gingrich’s dressing-down of John King at the candidate debate last week played big with primary voters in South Carolina. Not that it would take much to impress folks down there when it comes to scandal management; after all, this is the same electorate that put Mark Sanford in the governor’s mansion.

Unlike so many of his fallen political brethren, Gingrich has taken a relatively unusual approach to charges of sexual impropriety: instead of denial, he’s gone on the attack. Seasoned politician that he is, Gingrich understands that what really bothers so many Americans about seeing prominent politicians caught with their pants down is not so much the immorality of the acts committed as the failure to “man up” when embarrassing revelations go public—though how we’ve convinced ourselves that beating a dead horse like the media takes much by way of cojones is way beyond me.

Gingrich also seems confident that the American public ultimately couldn’t care less if a public figure turns out to have been a class-A jerk to the women in his life. You know what? He’s probably right.

Still, when Newt Gingrich seizes not just the political upper hand but the moral high ground, I get uneasy. What was particularly interesting to me about Gingrich’s performance at the debate is that he found a way to give voice to popular frustration with the media while somehow managing to make the viewing public feel validated rather than patronized. That’s no small feat. After all, by attacking the media for indulging his bitter ex-wife, Gingrich by implication was chastising all of us too. I mean, I seriously doubt there was anyone watching the debate proceedings who hadn’t taken some precious time in the preceding 48 hours to wallow in the glorious tawdriness of Open Marriagegate. But instead of Gingrich blaming us, he invited us to blame the media.

Just as the Republican Party enjoys success by playing to aspirations over reality—vote for the Party that protects the rich because hey, one day you might be rich too—so too did Gingrich’s diatribe shrewdly position the American people as the aggrieved victim of a pandering media, thereby downplaying the inconvenient fact of the public's own gleeful participation in watching the crisis bubble to a head. It’s sort of like stumping on a populist platform to boost the fortunes of the common man while promoting economic policies that screw that self-same common man. (And that really would be despicable, wouldn't it?) In both cases, self-delusion rules the day. But whether it comes to personal finances or media-bashing, it may feel good to make believe we are something we are not-but the price we pay for that fantasy may prove too high to bear.