Newt is many things, but the one thing he is, above all, is vital. To say he represents the heart of contemporary conservatism is not to render a positive judgment on his figure, as the term “heart” would normally imply. It is rather to say that he represents much of what is instinctive to conservatives (that is to say, to people who call themselves conservative, because Gingrich’s temperament is about as far from conservative as one can be). Pat Buchanan used to speak of a “conservatism of the heart,” by which he meant a conservatism of instinct, not of the rationalizations of right-wing sophisters. Gingrich represents a crass vulgarization of Buchanan’s view — unlike Buchanan, there is nothing about Gingrich that would challenge Washington’s status quo; his claim to be a rebel and an outsider is, like so much about him, a theatrical pose.
Nevertheless, he really is a politician of intense vitality. Contrast that with Romney, who cannot convince anybody, except maybe his children, that there is a case for him outside of cold rationality. Romney is not a cold fish, certainly, but he cannot convince anyone that the vitality one sees in him is anything but manufactured. His denunciations of Obama, and his nationalistic rhetoric, sounds like so much earwash. Gingrich, by contrast, may be a fraud, but he’s an authentic fraud. The case for Romney is based on two beliefs: 1) that he would be an able manager, and 2) that however tinny his heart, he is the only GOP candidate who has a reasonable chance of beating Barack Obama.
I still think both things are true of him. But who gets out of bed on Sunday morning to go hear a business professor lecture on management technique? I suppose American politics will always going to be about striking a balance between heart and head, between faith and reason. Sometimes these things balance out, sometimes they don’t, but in the age of television and mass democracy, charisma is a necessary element of national leadership. This was candidate Gore’s problem, this was candidate Kerry’s problem, and this is candidate Romney’s problem. This is not candidate Gingrich’s problem, though it’s obvious that the charisma that excites conservative voters repels everyone else equally.
The strength of the man of faith is his conviction that his faith tells him how the world ought to be, and that if he believes strongly enough, and acts on that belief, he can will the world of his dream into reality. His weakness — an inability to perceive the flaws in his worldview — is inseparable from that strength. I can easily imagine how the Republicans who are breaking for Newt love him because he articulates what’s in their hearts — and how the strength of those passions are blinding them to the facts that what they perceive as a rational description of our current political situation is in fact far more informed by the subjectivity of faith than they grasp. Barack Obama is not a popular president, nor a particularly able one, but most Americans don’t think he is a Kenyan Marxist whose re-election will consign America to the ash heap of history. If you believe that Obama is the devil, then you don’t want to send an academic theologian up against him, but rather a fire-and-brimstone prophet — even if, given actual political conditions outside the bubble, it means taking your party off the cliff like a pack of Gadarene swine.