Being the establishment candidate, as Mitt Romney learned Saturday, was far easier when the establishment really mattered.
Newt Gingrich's popularity comes largely from his broadsides against the "Washington elites" in his own party and the news media, but his success in South Carolina -- where the GOP establishment historically builds a firewall against insurgents -- demonstrates how thoroughly the elites and the establishment have frittered away the influence they once had.
Bob Dole, after losing to insurgent conservative Pat Buchanan in the 1996 New Hampshire primary, quickly unified the Republican establishment behind him before doing battle in South Carolina.
Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed barnstormed the Palmetto state for Dole, along with the Republican governor, David Beasley, and his predecessor, Carroll Campbell. The fire wall held. Dole carried the state and then cruised to the nomination -- just as he was supposed to.
This is how it always played out in the past -- the GOP establishment settled on a candidate before South Carolina, and then marched him uninterrupted to the convention. Reagan, Bush, Dole, Bush and McCain all followed this path.
Romney tried the same formula. Popular Gov. Nikki Haley endorsed him and plumped for him across the state. Virginia's popular governor, Bob McDonnell, also offered his support. Basically every "Republican strategist" trotted out by CNN, MSNBC, and FOX had rallied behind Romney by last week.
So how did Gingrich win?
It's tempting to blame Romney. He is uninspiring on the stump, and his campaign is sluggish, as my colleague Byron York reported from South Carolina on Sunday. But Bush 41, Dole and McCain weren't exactly firebrands either.
The key difference: There may no longer be a Republican establishment powerful enough to move Republican voters en masse. Whatever institutional support the establishment can provide may be outweighed among the conservative base by the Scarlet E stamped on the candidate.
Conservatives, for good reason, do not trust the establishment. They don't trust the leadership of their own party, which increased spending every year Republicans controlled Congress and the White House. They don't trust the economic "experts" at the Fed, at Treasury, and on Wall Street who steered the economy into a ditch with housing subsidies and cheap credit, and who responded with an unprecedented bank bailout that soon had Goldman Sachs touting record earnings.
Given this distrust, who would have the pull among South Carolina conservatives to help Romney? Not George W. Bush, who showed his lack of judgment with "Mission Accomplished," Harriet Miers, and hefty budget increases to finance "compassionate conservatism" at home and military adventures abroad. Not Sen. Lindsey Graham, John McCain's pal, who favored the bills that most stoked Tea Party anger: the Wall Street bailout and cap-and-trade climate legislation.
Even the state's junior senator, Tea Party hero Jim DeMint, knew better than to endorse Romney this month, something he did four years ago. DeMint in 2010 pushed the Senate candidacies of insurgents Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, and so he has cred on the conservative street. But if DeMint had tried to rally his troops behind Romney, he would have hurt himself far more than he would have helped Romney.
Party leaders -- center and right -- no longer can move the base. The best they can hope to do is hitch a ride on the base's passion. That's what Gingrich has done. He has kept his distance from the party establishment, and taken dead aim at the mainstream media, another institution that has lost credibility with the American public.
Gingrich's regular scolding of debate moderators has been at times silly or disingenuous, but the journalists often deserved a rebuke. Gingrich rightly chided CNBC's Maria Bartiromo for demanding a health care reform plan packed into 30 seconds. ABC's George Stephanopoulos persisted in rehashing a moot 1964 Supreme Court case on Connecticut's contraception laws. In South Carolina, Gingrich got standing ovations for counterpunching Fox's Juan Williams and CNN's John King.
Recent history has taught conservatives that their nominee will not get a fair shake from the liberal mainstream media. They remember the New York Times' 2008 cover story dragging out unfounded reports about an affair John McCain supposedly had with a lobbyist. They remember the networks' and newspapers' fawning, uncritical coverage of Obama that year, from Iowa through the inauguration.
So Gingrich gets away without offering a conservative record or proposals. He needs only to aim his cannons at the elites. Scold the media and declare yourself the enemy of the party establishment, and you have a good chance of winning a GOP primary.
While the roots of conservative, anti-elite sentiment are at least partly grounded in substance, the reaction to it is all identity politics. In his victory speech Saturday night, Gingrich -- a millionaire former party leader and corporate lobbyist now living in McLean, Va. -- railed against "Washington elites," to thunderous applause.
Given his record, it may be implausible that Gingrich can pose as anti-establishment. But the establishment is certainly anti-Newt. And for South Carolina's voters, that was an endorsement enough.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.