"How do we stop Newt?"
I've now been asked that question by a lot of conservatives. It's not that I'm the go-to guy for that sort of question. Rather, one gets the sense that many "establishment" conservatives are asking everybody that question — in staff meetings, at the chiropodist, even at the McDonald's drive-thru. ("I'll have two happy meals, two chocolate milks and — by the way — do you have any idea how to stop Newt?")
The other night, while having drinks with some prominent conservatives, I said I thought there was a significant chance that Newt Gingrich will not only win the nomination but that he might be the next president. Going by their expressions, I might as well have said I put a slow-acting poison in their cocktails.
Not surprising, then, that there are more knives out for Mr. Gingrich than in a Ginsu infomercial. For instance, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu has been nurturing a grievance against Mr. Gingrich since he was White House chief of staff in 1990. For two decades he's been like Inigo Montoya in "The Princess Bride." "Hello, my name is John Sununu. You destroyed my boss's presidency, prepare to die." Now, with everything at stake, he's not holding back.
But Mr. Sununu's barbs bounce off Mr. Gingrich, as has George Will's more brutal rhetorical artillery fire. That's because conventional weapons are useless against Newtzilla.
First, what are you going to say about the guy that people don't already know? Just as it's OK to speak openly about the fact that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father, Mr. Gingrich's backstory provides no spoilers. Herman Cain was undone because people were still forming their first impressions of him. Everything bad about Mr. Gingrich — the flip-flops, the wives, the ego — is known. Once voters have convinced themselves they can overlook that stuff, it's hard to change their minds simply by repeating it.
Moreover, conservative voters distrust the conservative establishment (variously defined) almost as much as they distrust the liberal establishment. (That's why David Brooks, the notoriously moderate New York Times columnist, leveled the most vicious charge he could against Mr. Gingrich: He touted their similarities!)
Also, Mr. Gingrich benefits enormously by being the last obvious "not-Romney" candidate. Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Mr. Cain were all well to Mr. Gingrich's right, and many voters assume that Mr. Gingrich is being attacked for the same reason that his not-Romney predecessors were.
But the stop-Newt forces are not synonymous with the stop-Bachmann/Perry/Cain forces. The conservative establishment knows Mr. Gingrich, or at least thinks it does. The insiders worry Ms. Bachmann, Mr. Perry and Mr. Cain aren't smart enough or can't beat President Barack Obama. The stop-Newters have no doubts about how smart Mr. Gingrich is.
As to whether he can beat Mr. Obama, opinions vary. But many feel that a Gingrich victory might be scarier than a GOP defeat. Mr. Gingrich's defenders say such fear is a compliment because it shows that he is a "change agent" threatening the status quo.
They have a point. Inside D.C., it sounds very strange to say that Mr. Gingrich is an "outsider." Mr. Gingrich has eaten from just about every trough imaginable inside the Beltway. And yet, he's always been very clear that he wants to ("fundamentally," "historically," "categorically" and "radically") overturn the existing order. Some critics always thought, plausibly, that such pronouncements were part of his act or a sign of his megalomania.
But there's another possibility: It's true. Moreover, the times may be ripe for precisely the sort of vexing, vainglorious and all-too-human revolutionary Mr. Gingrich claims to be. That's the argument a few people have been wrestling with (most notably John Ellis for RealClearPolitics.com and Steven Hayward for National Review Online). Mr. Gingrich, after all, is the only candidate to actually move the government rightward. While getting wealthy off the old order, he's been plotting for decades how to get rid of it. To paraphrase Lenin, perhaps the K Streeters paid Mr. Gingrich to build the gallows he will hang them on?
That remains a stretch. Mitt Romney is still the sensible choice if you believe these are rough, but generally sensible, times. If, however, you think these are crazy and extraordinary times, then perhaps they call for a crazy, extraordinary — very high-risk, very high-reward — figure like Mr. Gingrich.
This helps explain why Newtzilla is so formidable. In order to stop him, you need to explain to very anxious GOP voters that the times don't require him.
Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His email is JonahsColumn@aol.com.