Has the GOP jumped the shark?

All of us saw Saturday night the blowout win that was delivered to Newt Gingrich in South Carolina. According to the final results, as reported by Google:

  1. Gingrich — 40.4% (243,153)
  2. Romney — 27.8% (167,279)
  3. Santorum — 17.0% (102,055)
  4. Paul — 13.0% (77,993)

This is definitely a smashing win for Gingrich, a huge setback for Romney, and a new period of turmoil for the GOP presidential nomination race. Never before have three different candidates won Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. The race, once believed to be wrapped up by mid-February, might continue into March or April, or even later. And so all the blogs are saying.

But when I look at the results of the South Carolina primary, all I can ask myself is, “Has the Republican Party jumped the shark?”

TVTropes Wiki, a website devoted to stories, defines “jumping the shark”* as:

the moment when an established show changes in a significant manner in an attempt to stay fresh. Ironically, that moment makes the viewers realize that the show has finally run out of ideas. It has reached its peak, it will never be the same again, and from now on it’s all downhill.

I have to wonder if this is the fate that is falling upon the Republican Party.

As I posted the night of the results, Newt Gingrich is really the Republican Obama. He’s the one person in this race that has out flip-flopped Mitt Romney, which was previously thought to be a violation of one of the Laws of Thermodynamics. He has done pretty much everything opposite to what the Republican base wants, and yet he has earned their votes anyways. Such a drastic change is the result of the Republican Party going off the rails, over the shark, and perhaps into the abyss.

Think about it. We’ve heard from the right and the Tea Party types for the past three or four years now that we need to get rid of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored enterprises that helped contribute to the financial crisis of 2007 and the housing market mess. And then, for no good reason, they go vote for those companies’ former Lobbyist-in-Chief—oh, I’m sorry, historian—who tried to protect them.

Gingrich also has no foreign policy to speak of, as Max Fisher of The Atlantic noted in the National Journal:

On the surface, it looked like the same routine hypocrisy practiced by just about every political campaign: stake out the opposite position as your opponent’s, draw a contrast, and attack. But this reversal was especially flagrant, and amazingly unselfconscious, in a way that is particular to Newt Gingrich’s approach to foreign policy during the campaign. His conception of the world, as he reveals it time and again in episodes like this one, seems to have little ideological underpinning beyond a love of his own cleverness and a compulsive need to look smarter than the other guy. With his candidacy looking newly viable in South Carolina and perhaps beyond, it’s worth considering what this would mean for the world should he become president.

Gingrich is sometimes described as a policy nihilist. That doesn’t appear any more or less true when it comes to his foreign policy, but it could be a great deal more dangerous. The U.S. has a relationship of one form or another with almost every nation on Earth. All of those relationships are contingent on trust, if not in the U.S. as an ally (many aren’t), then at least in that they know what the U.S. will do. American predictability is one of the most important ways we secure our role on the world stage. Global politics is impossibly complicated, with dozens of states and actors intertwined in every problem and trying to plan ten steps ahead. One of the reasons we don’t devolve into chaos and war every other week is that everyone can anticipate everyone else’s behavior, and this is especially important for American dominance. America’s steady hand is not just a stabilizer but a way to make sure that everyone continues to assume American leadership. This doesn’t get talked about much because everyone takes it for granted. But would it last under a President Gingrich?

As with Libya, Gingrich seems to be awash in competing ideas — his favorite word — but has little in the way of core beliefs to guide them, or little compunction about jumping from one contradictory declaration to the next. This might make some fun for bloggers and opposition researchers in pointing out Gingrich’s contradictions and inconsistencies. But imagine what it would be like for a head of state or senior government official watching Washington from Beijing or Moscow or Jerusalem or Tehran, and having no idea how President Gingrich is going to behave.

There is absolutely nothing there, and when you follow the “policy nihilist” link, you would get to Andrew Sullivan’s blog which would then lead you to Bruce Bartlett, a former Bush I official, who writes:

This is typical of Mr. Gingrich’s modus operandi. He has always considered himself to be the smartest guy in the room and long chaffed at being corrected by experts when he cooked up some new plan, over which he may have expended 30 seconds of thought, to completely upend and remake the health, tax or education systems.

As Brian Shapiro of Right Across the Atlantic notes, this isn’t surprising: the guy took the idea for “Contract with America” from Ross Perot, and has notably vacillated on where he stands, if he stands at all. Stephen Silvinski noted here that he betrayed the Republican Revolution, which succeeded in spite of him, not because of him.

For a man who claims to be a candidate of “big ideas,” Newt Gingrich actually is pretty well out of them; Ross Douthat at the New York Times says he is “at a loss to identify the “big ideas” and “big solutions” that [Gingrich] is supposedly campaigning on.” It seems that everyting Gingrich has done so far has merely been to stroke his own massively inflated ego, make him sound like the most intelligent person in the room, even though he sounds like a complete nincompoop who wouldn’t grok the meaning of the word best fit to describe his campaign: caddywompus. (I mean, did you hear his boneheaded plan for the judiciary?)

In handing Gingrich a decisive victory Saturday night in South Carolina, GOP voters have demonstrated that they, and their party, are and is out of ideas as well. They have collectively “jumped the shark.” So obsessed and absorbed with passionate loathing for Obama, they have thrown out anything remotely resembling ideas or consistent principles, and have just gone with empty, heated rhetoric about how Obama is a terrible president (and I agree, he’s awful, but make your argument. So far, they’re failing on that.)

I wrote this past week that the GOP is going to have to do a little soul-searching:

The debate showed me that the GOP has a lot of soul-searching to do. If it wants to survive past 2012 and be a contender for elections in the future, it needs to radically shift its priorities and policies. It needs to stop regurgitating the same old, same old they’ve been on since the early 90s. They need to come to grips with both Reagan and George W. Bush; to recognize that Reagan was lionized afterwards and that his history is exaggerated, though he did some good (and he also did some bad); and that Dubya laid the foundation for Obama’s presidency, and that they must recognize his failings and consciously reject his administration and its policies, a break with the past. They need to acknowledge that it was the Heritage Foundation that first came up with Obamacare in the early 90s. It needs to admit that yes, sometimes it has been wrong, and mea culpa, but we want to fix our mistakes. It needs to recognize that one can’t be for small government and yet have massive military outlays and promoting corporate welfare.

It might be too late, though. The GOP may have already jumped the shark, and it might just as well be over. I can’t say that for certain, as it depends who emerges from the vicissitudes of the primary campaign to be the nominee, but I have a hunch that the GOP is going to keel over in the near future. It’s social conservatism is simply untenable in the long run; by 2020 it might be completely unpalatable. It’s foreign policy is better suited for Call of Duty rather than the real world. It’s right on entitlement reform and cutting spending to be absolutely necessary, but it never actually does anything about it—and when it does, its efforts are best described as “milquetoast.” Heck, the Tea Party—ostensibly a movement to reduce the size of government and bring back free markets—was coopted and later used to boost Gingrich’s statist hack campaign, meaning that movement is effectively dead.

The only question facing us now is what happens after. I have no idea. It’s quite possible we’ll enter a dominant-party era where the Democrats have full run of Washington, because there is just no alternative (although I doubt we’ll end up calling it the “Era of Good Feelings” like the last time.) Maybe a new party will replace the GOP as the GOP replaced the Whigs, and then compete with the Democrats. Or maybe something completely different. I don’t know. I am not an omniscient guru. But I do think, from where I’m typing, that the writing might be on the wall for the GOP.

*I’m not linking to it because if I did so, your soul would be absorbed and trapped there for all eternity.

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