Newt vs. Mitt: Clash of civilizations

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.