The conventional wisdom is set: Newt Gingrich's overwhelming victory in South Carolina sets the stage for an extended primary in which he represents the conservative base and Mitt Romney represents the more electable choice of the Republican establishment. But there's a key flaw in this narrative. Gingrich, the supposedly conservative choice, isn't reliably conservative and the supposedly electable candidate is looking less and less electable.
Romney, throughout the Republican race, was an incredibly vulnerable front-runner, given that he ran and governed as a moderate/liberal in Massachusetts and signed the health care law that was the model for the rightly-despised Obamacare. But his great organization, fundraising abilities and business background in an election about the economy were supposed to make him electable. Yet over the past few weeks, he's been unable to effectively respond to Gingrich's attacks on his career at private equity firm Bain Capital and to calls for him to release his tax returns. His favorability ratings have already been suffering, and today he got absolutely slaughtered in a state in which the establishment front-runner typically beats off insurgents and effectively locks down the nomination.
Given conservatives' deep reservations about Romney, there's always been an opening for a conservative alternative to him. And in theory, an extended primary between Romney and a consistent conservative outsider that elites dismiss as unelectable could be satisfying and healthy. The problem is that Gingrich, boosted by two debate performances in which he lashed out at moderators, was able to claim that mantle. And no more bizarre definition of "anti-establishment conservative" ever existed. Gingrich has been in Washington since Jimmy Carter was president. He lives in a ritzy suburb of DC. After being ousted from his role as Speaker of the House by his own party, he's profited by taking money from large corporations such as drug companies and Freddie Mac to push for polices that expand government, including (at the time) the largest expansion of entitlements since the Great Society in the form of the Medicare prescription drug plan. He recorded a global warming ad with then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In 2008, he endorsed an federal mandate to force individuals to purchase health insurance. And in one of the early tests of the Tea Party in 2009, he sided with the establishment candidate Dede Scozzafava over the conservative. Oh, and Gingrich also happens to be widely unpopular.
Over the next few weeks, or months, Gingrich will argue that Romney isn't conservative and isn't as electable as the establishment will have you believe, while Romney will argue that Gingrich isn't electable and isn't as conservative as he'd have you believe. And they'll both be right.
Rick Santorum, the newly-minted Iowa victor will try to find a seam between the two of them by arguing that he is the choice for consistent conservatism. But he'll run into problems making that argument.
Of course, President Obama is looming in the background in all of this. If he wins, he won't repeal Obamacare or sign real entitlement reform to rein in our debt. He'll raise taxes, expand regulations on businesses, appoint a new wave of liberal judges to the bench and union-friendly appointees to key posts.
One of the miracles of America's founding was that so many great men emerged at once and complemented each other with unique skills. But now, in a time of great crisis, we're stuck with painfully bad choices.