A successful presidential candidate taps into the public mood. Newt Gingrich must be hoping the public is bristling with irritation and high dudgeon.
The old saw is that the most dangerous place to be is between Chuck Schumer and a camera. The second most dangerous place to be is sitting across from Newt Gingrich on a stage asking him a question during a Republican debate. There is no surer way to get shot down as superficial, ill-informed and divisive than to pose a query to the former speaker of the House.
At the CNBC debate on the economy, Gingrich eyed Maria Bartiromo the way Franklin Roosevelt might have looked at Adm. Yamamoto had the Japanese commander been selected to moderate a foreign-policy debate shortly after Pearl Harbor. A lawyer argues the law when he doesn't have the facts on his side, and vice versa; Gingrich litigates the debate question even when he has a perfectly suitable answer.
His exchange with Bartiromo on health care was utterly characteristic. She asked all the candidates for a 30-second summary of how they would replace ObamaCare. A couple of them did, and when she got to Gingrich he objected to the "absurd question," complaining that no one could meaningfully discuss health care in 30 seconds. The two of them bickered unpleasantly about the appropriateness of the question for more than a minute -- before Newt gave in and delivered a crisp response hitting on the highlights of his thoughts on health care.
The chattering class that left Gingrich for dead months ago is now talking of a revival. Although his poll numbers have ticked up, it's unclear whether Republican voters will cooperate with the new pundit narrative. But Gingrich deserves the proverbial second look. For all his vast and well-established flaws, he's a figure whose strengths match the moment.
The Republican Party has worked its way through about half a dozen outsider-populists in the past year, all of whom have proven either not particularly knowledgeable or careful about the issues, or uninterested in undergoing the rigors of running for president, or both. Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry all rose and fell. Herman Cain is still ascendant, but even if he remains unharmed by sexual harassment allegations, he will probably be worn down over time by his touch-and-go command of substance and his lack of experience.
It's counterintuitive to categorize a former speaker of the House and the builder of a sprawling archipelago of Beltway organizations as an outsider-populist. But Gingrich never lost his genius for the outré. In his bristling hostility to representatives of the media at the debates, he's trained his fire on the institution that unites all Republicans in their disdain.
He can be as inflammatory as Donald Trump and as populist as Sarah Palin. Yet he brings to the table the wellsprings of knowledge of a history Ph.D. and an incorrigible -- insufferable, perhaps -- policy wonk.
No politician has spent so long saying we need such fundamental change. It is typical of Gingrich that his 21st-century Contract With America is conceived as "a larger and more complex developmental challenge than any presidential campaign has undertaken in modern times." Cue the eye-rolling. But the country now has such grave challenges even beyond the headline problems of joblessness and spiraling debt that there's a place for a candidate devoted to upending 20th-century structures in health care, education and more. Never have Gingrich's extravagant overstatements seemed so apt.
In many ways, Gingrich would be better-suited as an intellectual ombudsman of the GOP race than as a candidate himself; he has more baggage than Queen Elizabeth II on a road trip. But the hour is late and the pickings are slim. He ran when others didn't, and his outsider-populism is tinged with brilliance.
Republican voters not sold on Mitt Romney might have to decide that you go to political war with the alternative you have.
• Rich Lowry is editor of National Review.