Peggy Noonan, a consummate Washington insider with impeccable conservative credentials, recently came up with a nice turn of phrase to describe Newt Gingrich: "He is a human hand grenade who walks around with his hand on the pin, saying, 'Watch this!' " Back in Newt's heyday, the comic strip Doonesbury portrayed Gingrich as a lit bomb with a short fuse, who would occasionally explode with a bang. Right and Left seem to be in agreement on Newt's resemblance to trinitrotoluene, in other words (or, maybe, "Newtroglycerine"?). Which leaves only one key question to be answered: When, exactly, will this "Newtsplosion" take place?
Seeing how it's an interesting test of political prognostication, and seeing as how we haven't done one in a while, we're going to hold our very own "Call The Newtsplosion" contest. First we're going to outline the possible impact on the presidential race in a few wide ranges (so we all understand what the Newtsplosion's timing will mean), and then we're going to throw the contest open to all commenters at the end.
So, ready to play? Here we go....
Early Newtsplosion -- by January
Newt says something fundamentally idiotic before Florida's primary. This could even happen before Iowa caucuses, but in general the outcome would likely be similar if it happened as late as just before Florida votes. The resulting media uproar and pushback from the Republican establishment fatally wounds Newt's chances to become the nominee. Romney, in all likelihood, would leapfrog over the wreckage to grab the nomination (although all the Newt voters flocking to some other anti-Romney candidate is also a strong possibility, at this early date).
Either way, the Washington ether rings with echoes of pundits screaming "I told you so!" Establishment Republicans breathe an enormous sigh of relief that it happened sooner rather than later.
Middlin' Newtsplosion -- before wrapping up nomination
Newt holds off until later in the race, showing a discipline that few would have previously given him credit for. However, after Super Tuesday -- but before Newt has gained the "magic number" of delegates to make him the de facto nominee -- Newt goes "Bang!" in a very public way.
This would be harder for the Republican Party to recover from. If Newt and Mitt both have amassed a decent number of delegates, then Mitt will likely waltz into the nomination. Establishment Republicans, drenched in the cold sweat of imagining Newt as their nominee for weeks, heave a gasping and desperate sigh of relief, complete with tears of joy that Newt has taken himself out of serious consideration as their party's standard-bearer.
Late Newtsplosion -- after he's the nominee
Newt wraps up a winning number of Republican delegates. After this happens, Newt pulls the pin and spews shrapnel all over the crowd. If this self-immolation happens before the Republican convention, then possibly the party could still pull itself out of a nosedive by somehow rigging the vote for another candidate. If this happens after the convention, however, and during the general election, then the party is going to have to watch the rest of the race in sheer terror -- as they realize what "might have been" long before the voting even hands Barack Obama a landslide in November.
Establishment Republicans burn Newt in effigy across the land, in mob scenes. Democrats pop an extra-large amount of popcorn to gleefully watch the show. Republican voters stage a mass exodus for a third-party candidate (should one be on the horizon, at this point in time).
No Newtsplosion -- the pin stays in the grenade
This option is barely even being considered in the punditocracy, and it really should be getting more attention than it has so far garnered. Virtually the entire inside-the-Beltway set have decided that Newt is so unstable that he'll eventually torpedo his own chances. Across the political spectrum, it is rising to the status of foregone conclusion.
Perhaps this is a bit premature. Or, to put it another way, perhaps Newt is now more mature than people give him credit for. Newt surprises everyone, in this scenario, by keeping a lid on the crazy talk throughout the entire campaign. He shows brilliance in debating Obama, and the race is closer than a lot of Democrats would ever have dreamed in their worst nightmares.
Of course, since picking this one is kind of generic, if you choose "no Newtsplosion" in the comments, we'll have to insist on a few tiebreaker questions: Will Newt be the Republican nominee? Will he beat Obama? What will the vote be in the electoral college?
A few other general contest rules before I throw it open for your entries. The prize will be (in honor of Mitt Romney) a whopping 10,000 Quatloos. For those who have never seen a contest in this column before, the Quatloo is the favored fictional currency we use to place playful bets and run amusing contests (since, like Rick Perry, we simply don't have $10,000 lying around for such frivolity).
Entries must specify an exact date ("April 1" for instance). Or, at the very least, a date in relation to some other well-known campaign-schedule date ("four days before Super Tuesday" or "two weeks before the convention," for example). Entries which are too vague will be asked to name an exact date ("sometime in the spring" is not kosher, in other words). If you don't pick a date, and instead select "No Newtsplosion," you are required to answer the tiebreakers as well (anyone picking a date doesn't need to answer these, but feel free if you'd like...).
Winners will be announced either after the Newtsplosion is universally announced in the press, or after election day (should the pin stay in Newt's grenade all the way to the end).
So, what do you think? When will the Newtsplosion take place? For fun, if you'd like, please suggest what Newt will be quoted saying which will ruin his chances of being taken seriously. We'll even hand out a bonus of 100 Quatloos for the funniest "Newt steps up to the microphone and says..." line, just to keep things interesting.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant