Newt Gingrich, now the undisputed frontrunner in for the Republican presidential nomination, never misses a chance to cast himself as the true successor to Ronald Reagan, who overcame the party establishment to carry the GOP to glory in 1980.
But for many in the party, 2012 is beginning to smell a lot more like 1964, when Republicans chose the anti-establishment candidate Barry Goldwater over the silver-spooned northeasterner Nelson Rockefeller.
Too hot to handle for mainstream voters, the libertarian Mr. Goldwater carried only six states and 38 per cent of the popular vote in the subsequent general election.
So, unless the silver-spooned Mitt Romney ( he of the $10,000 bets) quickly regains his footing, expect much of the next three weeks before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses to be a debate about whether Mr. Gingrich is a Reagan or Goldwater figure.
Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan perfectly summed up the fears of many Republicans describing Mr. Gingrich as “a human hand grenade who walks around with his hand on the pin saying, ‘Watch this.’”
In Saturday night’s Republican presidential debate in Iowa, Mr. Gingrich defended his eye-popping description of the Palestinians as an “invented” people by evoking Mr. Reagan’s designation of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.”
“Reagan believed the power of truth restated the world and reframed the world. I’m a Reaganite. I’m proud to be Reaganite,” Mr. Gingrich insisted. “I will tell the truth, even if it’s at the risk of causing some confusion sometimes with the timid.”
Compare that to Mr. Romney’s response to Mr. Gingrich’s outburst: “If I’m president of the United States, I will exercise sobriety, care, stability and make sure that…I don’t do anything that would harm [the peace] process…I’m not a bomb thrower, rhetorically or literally.”
The Sunday political talk shows were aflutter over the clash, which neatly contrasted the temperaments and leadership styles of the two leading candidates.
“In an effort to put himself above the whole, you know, a little smarter than everyone, he throws out a phrase that can undermine the U.S. capacity to deal with issues,” former George H.W. Bush chief of staff John Sununu, a Romney supporter, said of Mr. Gingrich on CNN.
That prompted this rebuttal from former GOP congressman Bob Walker, a Gingrich supporter: “Spoken just like an establishment Republican. The fact is that all those establishment Republicans opposed Ronald Reagan when he called the Soviet Union the evil empire.”
The truth is, Mr. Gingrich is unlike either Mr. Reagan or Mr. Goldwater. He lacks Mr. Reagan’s reassuring temperament and sense of timing. Mr. Gingrich always seems to say the wrong thing at the wrong the time. He just can’t help himself.
But nor is Mr. Gingrich a Goldwater figure. Unlike the libertarian Arizona senator, Mr. Gingrich is a policy wonk who loves government and believes in its role in shaping economic and social outcomes.
New York Times columnist David Brooks cited this example from a 1984 book written by Mr. Gingrich: “The opportunity society calls not for a laissez-faire society in which the economic world is a neutral jungle of purely random individual behaviour, but for forceful government intervention on behalf of growth and opportunity.”
Indeed, in the past few years alone, Mr. Gingrich has supported (before repudiating) cap-and-trade legislation to combat global warming and an individual mandate requiring all Americans to purchase health insurance.
He has also called for “a massive new program to build a permanent lunar colony to exploit the moon’s resources.”
Mr. Romney ridiculed that one in Saturday’s debate: “Places where we disagree? Let’s see. We could start with his idea to have a lunar colony that would mine minerals from the moon. I’m not in favour of spending that kind of money to do that.”
Mr. Gingrich may have had the last laugh, arguing, “I’m proud of trying to find things to give young people a reason to study science and math and technology and telling them that someday in their lifetime they could dream of going to the moon, dream of going to Mars.”
Mr. Reagan inspired a generation, too, with the space shuttle program and a defence build-up that funneled billions of dollars into research and development.
Indeed, from a policy perspective, Mr. Gingrich is like Mr. Reagan in that neither could truly be called small-government Republicans.
So why does it feel like 1964 all over again?