Newt vs. Mitt: Clash of civilizations

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Newt Gingrich always had it in him to be the anti-Romney. But not until this month has Newt reminded us exactly how and why.

Despite their vast differences, Bachmann, Cain, Perry and Santorum — the Republican field’s would-be anti-Romneys — all embodied the customary view of the GOP’s big internal divide. The base versus the elites! What could be more important than that?

Something big. Something we might call (in a nod to Newt’s taste for the portentously nerdy and the epically titular) The Gingrich Proposition.

Procedurally, The Gingrich Proposition is that you’re thinking too small. The Gingrich Proposition, as he likes to put it, is that you have to “go up a couple of levels” in your categories of thought.

And when you do, you come to the substance of The Gingrich Proposition — his very own master category of thought, which he has maintained at least since 1992, when he wrote it down in a note-to-self now making the rounds on TV and the Web:

advocate of civilization, defender of civilization, teacher of the rules of civilization, arouser of those who form civilization, organizer of the pro-civilization activists, and leader “possibly” of the civilizing forces.

Yes, that’s Newt on Newt, to the howling delight of the media. (Bill Maher devoted a recent segment of “Real Time” to comparing Gingrich’s delusions of grandeur with Charlie Sheen’s.)

Most people are unaccustomed to fellow human beings thinking — much less speaking — of themselves in this way. But The Gingrich Proposition holds that this species of small-mindedness characteristically misses the point. And the point is that anyone who’s serious about playing the leadership game today in America has to take seriously the idea that leadership means taking stewardship of civilization itself.

Think Herman Cain likes “bold plans”? Nothing’s bolder than The Gingrich Proposition. And nothing’s a bolder challenge to the animating principle of the Romney campaign that we have absolutely no need to think in Newt’s terms.

The Romney Principle is that we make a mistake when we indulge in the sweeping-history approach to understanding the world we live in. The Romney Principle is that philosophy is not the master science — that it leads us foolishly away from the all-important “weeds.”

The Romney Principle, in short, maintains that since only a master technocrat can get us out of our mess — what with his supremely focused and disciplined command of the machinery of government in all its granular detail — Gingrich and his Proposition are more likely to lead our civilization to ruin than to save it. While Newt beholds the vastness of its challenges, Rome burns. While Mitt only appears to lose us in the weeds, he’s really saving civilization by refusing to let it entrance him.

Neither candidate has put their pitch in these terms, of course — because neither of them has had to, and because neither has wanted to.

To call attention to the starkness of the divide between their worldviews is to call down the thunder of a primary-season battle royale that runs fully counter to Newt’s and Mitt’s shared and successful theme that 2012 is about nothing more or less than the superiority of the Republican alternative to Barack Obama and the Democrats. As yet, both Gingrich and Romney have shared a vested interest in letting one another be.

All that is about to change. The Gingrich Proposition carries tremendous totemic potential among anti-establishment conservatives who are so frustrated with the technocratic wing of the GOP precisely because they’re convinced that their own elites are permitting Western civilization to disestablish itself.

Nancy Pelosi’s hometown newspaper, The San Francisco Chronicle, described back in 1997 how the congresswoman’s discovery of The Gingrich Proposition was “what really turned [her] stomach” about Newt. How’s that for a rejoinder to the now-infamous “couch cuddle” between the two?

As Rich Lowry has observed, Newt Gingrich is the only anti-Romney in the field who can go toe to toe with Mitt on the spontaneous public display of wonkitude. But when faced with Newt’s Zarathustran articulation of The Gingrich Proposition, Romney can only recoil into the 2-D platitudes about three-legged stools of American greatness that followed him to primary defeat in 2008.

Still, neither candidate is going to win a lifetime conservative beauty contest. But in a face-off between the two, Republican primary voters may well be led to think more like Newt than like Mitt about what’s at stake in 2012. With pessimistic populism on the march, it’s likely that many of them already do.

James Poulos is the host of The Bottom Line and Reform School on PJTV. A doctoral candidate in Government at Georgetown University, he holds degrees from Duke and USC Law. His writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Boston Globe, Cato Unbound, The National Interest, and The Weekly Standard, among others, and is featured in the collection Proud to Be Right, edited by Jonah Goldberg. He has been an editor at Ricochet.com and a fellow of the Claremont Institute. He lives in Los Angeles. His Twitter handle is @jamespoulos.

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