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The Underminey Backlash Against Newt, Starring Peggy Noonan

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So I love it when Peggy Noonan writes columns like this sweet and vicious contemplation of Newt Gingrich. We learn that Gingrich is detested most by those who worked with him -- a powerful list of Republicans who are now “burning up the phone lines in Washington” to protest his recent surgelet -- and that while there are two ways to view Gingrich, he is, in the end, his own greatest foe: “a human hand grenade who walks around with his hand on the pin, saying, ‘Watch this!’”

Noonan is an influential conservative, of course, a former Reagan scribe who is the closest thing the Wall Street Journal has to Maureen Dowd -- a zeitgeist-chasing free-associater who gets some big things right, even if annoyance is the cost of admission. So it’s striking to watch Noonan tick off Gingrich’s accomplishments in the voice of a long-lost underminey friend:

One way to view [Gingrich] is that he is so rich and varied as a character, as geniuses often are, that he contains worlds, multitudes… Another way to look at it: In a long career, one will shift views, adapt to circumstances, tack this way and that. Another way: He’s philosophically unanchored, an unstable element. There are too many storms within him, and he seeks out external storms in order to equalize his own atmosphere. He’s a trouble magnet, a starter of fights that need not be fought. He is the first modern potential president about whom there is too much information.

So many ways to look at it! And bonus points for the TMI reference! But still, what comes through here, and in the growing chorus of influential Newt critics, is that Gingrich’s personal qualities make him not only hard to be near but impossible to rely on. (As one former chief of staff in a Republican White House recently said, “Listen to just about anyone who worked alongside Gingrich and you will hear that he’s inconsistent, erratic, untrustworthy and unprincipled.”) Noonan’s armchair analysis of what drives Gingrich’s unstable tics is interesting. although who knows if it’s true. New Yorkers used to say that Rudy Giuliani was strong during crises, but if there were none for him to tackle, he’d just create his own. Whatever the motivation, does Newt’s instability hold him back?

Noonan doesn’t claim to have interviewed many Republican voters, and she’s not burdened by the need to substantiate her imaginary sense of their views. But that doesn’t mean she’s wrong, either. Take these feelings projected on the Republican electorate:

Republicans on the ground who view Mr. Gingrich from afar, who neither know nor have worked with him, are more likely to see him this way: “Who was the last person to actually cut government? Who was the last person who actually led a movement that balanced the federal budget? … The last time there was true welfare reform, the last time government was cut, Gingrich did it.”

This is speculation, but it is somewhat testable. The idea is that Republicans see Gingrich as more serious, and ready to lead, than his carnival of rivals in this weird primary. Well, in Iowa, Gingrich is not only drawing some anti-Romney voters who simply left Cain and Perry. He has also convinced an even larger swath of Republicans that he has the best experience to be president. A whopping 42 percent of Iowa Republicans say that about Gingrich -- more than double the number who think that of Romney. (The rest of the field near single digits.) Or to put it another way, at least 9 percent of Iowa Republicans who are currently backing another candidate still think Gingrich has the best experience to be in the White House. While national polls are less reliable, because they include states that have little exposure to the race so far, the same trend holds with Republicans across the country. (See this CNN poll.)

So Noonan’s hunch looks right. Republicans take Gingrich this seriously partly for good reason -- he was Speaker of the House, dealing directly with the president -- and partly, I suspect, because of the balming influence of television fame. Unlike, say, former Speaker Tom Foley, Gingrich labored to stay famous long after his stint in the House. He churned out books, movies, white papers and appeared on everything from Fox News to The Daily Show. The thrust of Noonan’s column is that there are two crowds for the two views of the two Newts -- an “extraordinary divide in opinion between those who know Gingrich and those who don’t.”

The essence of fame, of course, is people knowing of you without knowing you. Gingrich’s hope, then, is to keep these worlds apart and his fans at a distance.

Related by Ari Melber :Gingrich: The Most Serious Joke in the GOP Race

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Ari Melber writes for The Nation, where this piece was first published.

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