I have, for my sins, watched Gingrich make his pitch across what feels like seventeen thousand Republican primary debates, and I am at a loss to identify the “big ideas” and “big solutions” that he is supposedly campaigning on. Yes, he has an implausible supply-side tax plan, but you never hear him talk about it. He has technically signed on to some form of entitlement reform, but you never hear him talk about that, either. Instead, so far as I can tell, his “idea-oriented” campaign consists almost entirely of promising to hold Lincoln-Douglas-style debates with President Obama, grandstanding about media bias and moderator stupidity, defending his history of ideological flexibility much more smoothly than Mitt Romney, and then occasionally throwing out a wonky-sounding notion (like, say, outsourcing E-Verify to American Express) that’s more glib than genuinely significant. His last-minute momentum in South Carolina, which last night’s debate did nothing to derail, has been generated almost exclusively by the politics of ressentiment: If he wins the Palmetto State primary, it will be because conservative voters don’t much like the mainstream press, and Gingrich has mastered the art of taking tough questions and turning them into dudgeon-rich denunciations of the liberal media and all its works.
Meanwhile, the Politico explores the reasons for Gingrich's rise in South Carolina. This report also comes down to questions of style.
Gingrich's campaign has always been a very style-driven one. Even the flaws popularly imputed to Gingrich tend to focus more on questions of image than those of substance: he called Paul Ryan's budget "right-wing social engineering" or sat on the couch with Pelosi. Those public relations specters have haunted his candidacy, in some respects far more than actual policy positions (such as his plan to give local boards the ability to legalize "undocumented" immigrants or his position that the president can ignore Supreme Court rulings at will or his---past---support for cap-and-trade).
Running on style has helped Gingrich in a variety of ways. Filled with thirty-second soundbites, the debate structure of this cycle has encouraged this emphasis on style. The limitations of these fora have empowered the one-liner (though some interesting substantive points have been brought up as well). And Gingrich has mastered the ability to pour a distillation of disdain and wrath into a few sentences. For many frustrated "conservatives," this concoction is the sweetest of candies.
Much of the grassroots right has expressed a great desire for a bare-knuckles fighter and a primordial cage match between progressivism and "true conservatism," and Gingrich has blithely volunteered to be the anointed gladiator. Moreover, his aggression toward the media and the left has helped differentiate him from Romney. Gingrich has had as many "flip-flops" as Romney (if not more), but his casting of himself as the antithesis of "the establishment" has given him a brand that can ignore those petty distinctions of policy.
Early on, style almost broke Gingrich's candidacy. Then, late in 2011, style elevated him. A sustained attention to Gingrich's record interrupted this rise, leading to the ascent of Santorum in Iowa. In order to restore his position, Gingrich has embraced his role as the anti: anti-media, anti-Obama, anti-Romney, anti-establishment, anti-"vulture capitalism," anti-settling, and anti-ending the primary. By casting himself as the great NOT, Gingrich can play into the frustrations of those looking for the "perfect" candidate. This stylistic approach has given new life to his campaign. We'll have to see how much it helps him in South Carolina tomorrow night.