NEWT GINGRICH is the latest unlikely figure to vault to the top of Republican presidential polls, and unlike those who preceded him - Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain - he’s likely to stick around. That’s partly due to necessity. With just a month until the Iowa caucuses, conservatives don’t have time to anoint a new savior. It’s also because, despite his copious shortcomings, he seems immune to what felled the others. An able debater, he won’t flop like Perry and Cain. He’s not a full-on nut like Trump. And his legislative record eclipses Bachmann’s, which barely exists.
But his late emergence as the “true conservative’’ poised to challenge Mitt Romney is rich, and its broader significance underappreciated. For two years, the driving force in national politics has been the Tea Party, whose founding myth was that ordinary citizens were rising up in defiant objection to the hidebound, self-dealing ways of Washington. Greedy politicians, this view held, had bloated the government and lined their own pockets at taxpayers’ expense, while letting the country go to rot. Prime examples were the expansion of government health care and federal support for the housing market - especially Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored entities that many conservatives blame for the financial crisis. The mere fact of being a veteran Washington legislator made respected conservatives like Senator Bob Bennett of Utah into Tea Party targets and cost many their jobs. Should all that anger, energy, and antipathy to Washington end up concentrating itself in the person of Newt Gingrich, then the movement will have failed in its most important race.