Newt Gingrich enjoys contemplating his own world-historic importance. The House Select Committee on Ethics released a series of his notes and doodles from the years leading up to the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. His chickenscratch can be hard to make out at times but it is revealing.
These documents make it clear Gingrich did not think of his eminent Speakership in normal terms. One of the notes is labeled "Gingrich -- Primary Mission," and it has six bullet points for how he sees his role going forward. The missional Gingrich is an "advocate"; "definer"; and "teacher of the rules of civilization." He will be an "arouser of those who form civilization" as well as an "organizer of the pro-civilization activists." Suggested cheer for those activists: What do we want? Civilization! When do we want it? Thousands of years from now!
In conclusion, Gingrich wrote, he sees himself as the "leader (possibly) of the civilizing forces." His parenthetical caution should not be mistaken for a note of humility. Rather it was simply an acknowledgement of the contingency of history. Maybe he'd get his shot, maybe he wouldn't.
The currents of history pulled against his ambitions for more than a decade. Gingrich resigned his Speakership in 1998 after his party nearly lost its majority in the House of Representatives, and Gingrich called his colleagues "cannibals" on the way out the door. He did not stand for public office again until now.
Gingrich used his wilderness years to do a couple of things. He exploited his government connections to enrich himself -- pocketing, for instance, $1.6 million from Freddie Mac in consulting fees -- and he built up a large following among conservatives as a wonk-celebrity and Fox News talking head. When he flirted with running for president in 2008, throngs of grassroots conservatives mobbed his speeches. As he came into the auditorium at CPAC that year, the energy level in the room rose to 11.
Perhaps that cheering is why he soldiers on now in his Quixotic quest to get the Republican nomination. Or perhaps the Napoleonic Gingrich that we see in those notes from the early nineties, conveniently collected by Slate here, is the real deal. Deciding that question would require deeper psychoanalysis of the man than we have space for here, but still, you have to wonder at the man's state of mind.
It is very obvious at this point that Gingrich's run for the presidency has wounded him politically and professionally, yet he continues to shrug it off publicly. The mass staff exodus, the revelations about his personal life, the refusal of grassroots conservatives to embrace him as the conservative challenger to Mitt Romney; all of these things would force most normal people to pack it in by now, but not Newt.
Gingrich's doggedness in the face of political irrelevancy reminds me an awful lot of left-wing activist and hated liberal villain of the 2000 election Ralph Nader. Indeed, I think it's possible that Newt Gingrich's vaunted Place in History may well be as the Ralph Nader of the right.
The analogy isn't exact. Gingrich isn't promising to go third party. But his presence in the race kept Republicans from rallying around Rick Santorum or some other conservative challenger to Romney. At this point, even if Gingrich dropped out, Romney's delegate lead is likely too great for Santorum to overcome.
Conservatives may forgive him for this if the Republican beats President Obama. A rising tide lifts a lot of champagne glasses, after all. But what happens if Romney loses and Gingrich catches the blame for that as well? The former Speaker is working to make that happen. He has expressed an interest in taking it all the way to the GOP convention, denying Romney the nomination on the first ballot, and engaging in a little direct democracy.
Maybe he'll blink. Or maybe Obama will prove beatable in November, in spite of all the GOP infighting. But if Obama is sworn in for a second term, Newt Gingrich will become a very hated man on the right -- just the latest loser in their clash of civilizations.