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The Republican Nightmare

Newt Gingrich; drawing by John Springs

Gingrich’s confrontation with his own life story produced some curious moments in 2011. How would he explain the recurrent “problem” of personal infidelity? In an interview with David Brody in March 2011, on the Christian Broadcasting Network, he confessed to a large-heartedness that might have strayed into exuberance: “There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.” Gingrich had said something similar, but more raw and less equivocal, when interviewed by Gail Sheehy for a 1995 story in Vanity Fair: “I think you can write a psychological profile of me that says I found a way to immerse my insecurities in a cause large enough to justify whatever I wanted it to.” There, only the adolescent cover of “insecurities” is asked to palliate the length of his trespasses.

The puzzle is why such a person would want to remain in public view as a moralist. And yet, such is the wildness of moralism, many conservatives in an evangelical Christian state were ready to take him back. Was it worse than a minor flaw that Gingrich had become a serial dipper and sipper in the available modes of salvation, one of those Christians who have equal pleasure in sinning and repenting?

This would now be a major theme if he had beaten Romney in Iowa. But while his resurgence was on, Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, told an NPR interviewer on December 8 that the evangelical men in his two hundred focus groups were willing in Gingrich’s case to “let bygones be bygones.” Only the women wanted more: “They’re willing to forgive him, but they want him to ask for it, and they want to hear more regret.”

If anything united the Republicans besides their loathing for gun control, abortion, big government, and Obama, it was their avowal of hostility to Iran and support of anything Israel might do against it. The exception was Ron Paul, who in the twelfth debate went off script and off the reservation, with a statement grave enough to serve as a plank of a third-party platform. “To declare war on 1.2 billion Muslims and say all Muslims are the same, this is dangerous talk,” said Paul. “They don’t come here to kill us because we’re free and prosperous. Do they go to Switzerland and Sweden?… The CIA has explained it to us. It said they come here and want to do us harm because we’re bombing them.” He went further in a comment on Iran and the bomb quoted in The New York Times on December 31: “What are the odds of them using it? Probably zero. They just are not going to commit suicide. The Israelis have 300 of them.”

Paul owes his appeal in the libertarian wing of his party to the high proportion of candid statements about US war policy and the national security state that he has made over the past decade. In addressing such issues, he has no rival among Republicans, and, after the death of Robert Byrd and the defeat of Russ Feingold, none among Democrats of national stature. On issues of national security and war, he is the American politician who speaks to Americans as if they were grownups interested in their own condition, and as if the Constitution might have a direct bearing on our laws and conduct.

That his antistatism goes all the way to opposing disaster relief and economic planning, and calls for a return to the gold standard, assures that he will remain a minority candidate. Articles in a newsletter he sent out in the 1990s—tainted by racist and anti-Semitic slurs and formally disavowed by Paul since 2008—will also disqualify him with some voters who might otherwise be drawn to a representative who dared to defend WikiLeaks on the floor of Congress. But there is a peculiar gratitude people may feel for the bringer of inconvenient facts that are spoken without fear. Paul’s supporters are the most uncompromising in the party, and they are a growing minority: in 2008 he took 10 percent in Iowa, in 2012 it was 21 percent.

By contrast, the most belligerent Republican on Israel and Iran has turned out to be Santorum: he asserted, in a recorded conversation with a voter on November 21, that “all the people that live in the West Bank are Israelis, they’re not Palestinians. There is no ‘Palestinian.’” A few days earlier, Santorum had said about the threat of Iran: “A country that is developing a weapon of mass destruction to use it to destroy another country must be stopped in a preemptive strike.” And on Meet the Press on January 1 he affirmed his view in different words: Iranian leaders must open their facilities to inspection and begin to dismantle their advanced equipment, or the US will attack.

This statement comes at a moment of enormous tension—heightened by Israel’s warmest supporters in Congress. The Iran Threat Reductions Act, proposed by the Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, passed in the House of Representatives on December 14 by a vote of 410–11. This crudely assertive and possibly unconstitutional bill would prohibit all contact between Iranian and American officials without fifteen days’ prior notice to Congress. Bill Clinton, in 1996, complained of the “scandalous electioneering” practiced by Benjamin Netanyahu from abroad.

Fifteen years later, ever since his visit to Congress in May, Benjamin Netanyahu has been working to intimidate the president and pull from Republican candidates and from Congress at large professions of loyalty to his project of bombing Iran to reduce its possible nuclear capability.

There has been a change, however, since 1996. Clinton’s anger was registered in private. But it was Thomas Friedman, the American opinion-maker most highly regarded in Israel, who wrote in a column of December 13 that Netanyahu’s standing ovation in Congress last May “was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.” And five days later, there occurred a remarkable exchange on Fareed Zakaria’s CNN program Global Public Square. The subject was how the Republicans try to outbid each other in submissive postures of unconditional loyalty to Israel; the immediate pretext was Gingrich’s having said on December 9 to an interviewer for the Jewish Channel (a cable station) that the Palestinians are an “invented” people. Zakaria and his guests then passed on to the broader subject of avowals of love for Israel and unquestioning support for Likud policies:

Zakaria: Michele Bachmann trumps them all by saying, “I went to a kibbutz when I was 18 years old.”
David Remnick: A socialist experiment, I might remind her. A socialist experiment. You know, as a Jewish American I find it disgusting. And I know what he’s going after. He’s going after—he’s going after a small slice of Jewish Americans who donate to political funds—to campaigns and also to Christian Evangelicals. It’s—the signaling is obvious. What they’re doing is obvious. But what they’re describing in terms of the, say, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has no bearing on reality whatsoever. It’s ignorance combined with cynical politics and irrelevance. It’s really awful. It’s really awful.
Zakaria: Do you agree?
Peggy Noonan: Yes, I do.
Zakaria: Gillian?
Gillian Tett [of the Financial Times]: I do. And I think that actually given the current moves in Iran at the moment and what’s happening elsewhere in the region, that kind of rhetoric is likely to become more and more relevant going forward.
Zakaria: And then the other place where I noticed that there is some traction is Iran. There’s this feeling, again, I think somewhat unrealistically that we’re going to be tougher on Iran. We’re going to be, so that Gingrich says he wouldn’t bomb Iran, but he would effect regime change. Good luck, you know?

This was a breakthrough. Remnick’s comment is especially notable because it gives up the euphemism “Jewish voters” and refers frankly to Jewish donors. It is millions of dollars and not just a few thousand votes that the pandering Republicans are trawling for. Meanwhile, Israel itself has witnessed a development germane to the Republican pledges in Iowa of implicit support for any action by Israel. The majority of Israel’s intelligence establishment has actively argued against or publicly spoken to oppose the adventurist policy of Netanyahu and his description of Iran as an “existential threat.” These last words have been discountenanced by the present director of Mossad, Tamir Pardo, and, more sternly, by the retired director Meir Dagan, as well as by the former head of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate, Amos Yadlin, the former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, Gabi Ashkenazi, and the former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin. Opposition within Israel apparently succeeded in thwarting an initiative by Netanyahu to attack Iran in 2010. It remains to be seen whether it can do so again.

Probably none of the Republicans who clocked in at the Iowa debates to back aggressive US support of Israel against Iran was aware of this internal division—easily discoverable in recent stories in Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. Such an uprising from the military and intelligence establishment itself, against an intended military action by an elected government, is exceedingly rare in the history of democracies. So we are at a strange crossroads. The right-wing coalition government of Israel is trying to secure support, with the help of an American party in an election year, for an act of war that it could not hope to accomplish unassisted; while an American opposition party complies with the demand of support by a foreign power, in an election year, to gain financial backing and popular leverage that it could not acquire unassisted.

By January 3, three weeks of ads by the Romney PAC Restore Our Future had cut down Gingrich from 26 percent to 13 percent. As long as there is a rostrum to lean on, he will go on talking, but his probable role has become that of a spoiler. What, then, to make of Rick Santorum, who fell just eight votes short of Romney in Iowa? The Fox talkers are a force to be reckoned with, in South Carolina likely more than in Iowa. Rush Limbaugh, who in 2008 did great damage by withholding support from John McCain until he picked Sarah Palin to run with, has shown unmitigated coldness toward Romney. He let out stray flickers of experimental sympathy for Perry and (in a more skeptical tone) for Gingrich, too, in early December, but Santorum’s strong showing on January 3 left him in a condition of explosive glee.

Gingrich, said Limbaugh to his listeners the morning after, was obviously enraged; he would seek revenge against Romney, and cut him up in debates and on the stump. “Newt’s not getting out. Newt’s in this to destroy Romney now.” For the coming South Carolina debate “he is loaded for bear.” With Bachmann retired and Perry as good as out, the conservative vote can rally behind Santorum. Temperamentally, Limbaugh is closer to Gingrich than are the mass of columnists and front-line party apologists who tried to bury him in December, and it is possible that Gingrich will indeed stay in, with just this function, out of a combination of spite and pride and a shade of sentimental regard for Rick Santorum—the weak halfback who just might score with a dirty block off-tackle.

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