At last weekend's Georgia Republican convention in Macon, state party Chairwoman Sue Everhart, fresh from being narrowly elected to her third term, crowed, "We are the reddest state anywhere!"
Looking just at Georgia's all-GOP lineup of statewide elected officials, its legislative majorities and the state's recent presidential voting patterns, we might be inclined to agree. But today's Republican party is hardly a political monolith, operating with one mind and one voice. That's why Newt Gingrich is such an appropriate symbol for the party whose modern persona he helped shape — and which he's almost certainly never destined to lead again.
There have always been bomb-throwing, scorched-earth politicians, but what set Gingrich apart was his ability to shift from making over-the-top, personalized attacks on opponents one moment to offering thoughtful, wonkish policy analysis the next. As House minority whip in the '80s, Gingrich was effective at rallying the GOP faithful by vilifying Democrats. But he was able to make the unprecedented jump to House Speaker because he was also the smartest, most articulate guy in the room.
When you hear a right-wing talk show host excoriating liberal lawmakers as "Marxists" or "traitors," that's in large measure Gingrich's legacy. He proved that you can be a political hit man who says plainly outrageous things about folks on the other side of the aisle, but still be treated as a serious thinker and policy maker. In doing so, the former Georgia congressman helped create the template for the vicious, slash-and-burn rhetoric often used by his fellow Republicans. And he's still doing it: labeling Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor a racist and making dismissive reference to Pres. Obama's "Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior," to cite recent examples.
These aren't slips of the tongue or gaffes. Gingrich has always peppered his high-minded discussions of political theory with nasty, ad hominem slurs as a calculated way to throw red meat to the faithful — and his tactics have been adopted by many in his party. The trouble is, others haven't been able to walk the tightrope of being alternately shocking and statesmanlike as well as Gingrich because they don't possess his smarts or vision or grasp of policy minutiae. But it's this spiteful, trash-talking behavior that has resonated with many of today's conservatives, making it somehow seem acceptable to shout "You lie!" during a State of the Union address or hold up drawings of Obama with a Hitler mustache — or worse — at Tea Party rallies.
The irony is that, as skilled a political strategist as Gingrich is, he's no longer able to control the party extremists who'd rather tear down the government than compromise with liberals. Newt the Party Elder may still have the ability to influence GOP talking points, but Newt the Presidential Candidate is probably unelectable — even in Georgia — because he's too cerebral for the mad-as-hell Tea Partiers but too mean-spirited for the average Georgia voter.
At least we hope so. When Gingrich is focused on ways to improve American lives through technology or grappling with complex policy matters, like health care, he can be a valuable national resource. But when he's in partisan political mode — which is to say, usually — Gingrich often turns nasty, tearing others down to buoy up his own side. Georgia may be a red state, but let's hope it doesn't emulate Newt's mean streak.
@ Roxanne Dimacale
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