I have never seen such a pundit-people divide as we are seeing now in the candidacy of Newt Gingrich in the GOP presidential race leading up to the Iowa caucus.
Polls show Gingrich in some cases far ahead of his rivals. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (Dec. 7-11) has Gingrich ahead of Mitt Romney by 17 points nationally. The Real Clear Politics Average, a blend of polling results, has Gingrich beating Romney in Iowa roughly 29 percent to 17 percent (though one outlier poll has Gingrich statistically tied there with Ron Paul). Romney seems to have a lock on New Hampshire, but Gingrich is up by more than 19 points over Romney in South Carolina. The CNN/Time poll gives him a 23-point lead.
Despite this decisive popular support for the former speaker of the House, it is hard to find anyone in the conservative chattering class with anything nice (on balance) to say about him. Managerial incompetence, philosophical instability, and frightening self-absorption show up as recurring themes.
Peggy Noonan calls him "a human hand grenade who walks around with his hand on the pin, saying, 'Watch this!'" While recognizing his virtues and great accomplishments, she calls him "ethically dubious," "egomaniacal," and "erratic and unreliable as a leader." George Will says Gingrich "embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive."
David Brooks, a remarkably genial fellow, told Time, "I wouldn't let that guy run a 7-Eleven let alone the country." Joe Scarborough shares this judgment, calling Gingrich "an ideological train wreck and the worst manager this side of Barack Obama." Expanding on Noonan's "egomaniacal," Brooks writes that Gingrich "has every negative character trait that conservatives associate with '60s excess: narcissism, self-righteousness, self-indulgence and intemperance." Charles Krauthammer shares this judgment: "Gingrich has a self-regard so immense that it rivals Obama's-but, unlike Obama's, is untamed by self-discipline."
Most recently, an editorial in The National Review cites "his impulsiveness, his grandiosity, his weakness for half-baked (and not especially conservative) ideas" when he was speaker of the House. "Again and again," the editorial continues, "he put his own interests above those of the causes he championed in public." Though that was then, "there is reason to doubt that he has changed."
(For a statement of horror from an evangelical viewpoint at the prospect of a Gingrich presidency, read David French at Patheos.com.)
Only Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard has made a public case for him, but he made the case on television, not in his magazine, and he expressed it in terms of what Gingrich could say in his own defense. But Roger Simon at PJ Media has come out strongly for the controversial frontrunner in full awareness of the man's vices: "Only Newt dances. Only Newt, on occasion, is original. Only Newt-and here is the important part-has the capacity to wake us up. What attracts me about the man is the very thing that Romney criticized, the part that wants to explore the moon and stars, maybe even mine them."
If Newt Gingrich wins the nomination, will he be a trophy of the people's self-assertion, perhaps even a testimony to the superiority of popular wisdom over professional punditry? Or will he be yet another Tea Party lapse of judgment in the tradition of Sharron Angle (Nevada), Joe Miller (Alaska), and Christine O'Donnell (Delaware)? This is why long primary seasons are a good idea.