On television and in social cyberspace, the talking heads were all a-Twitter Tuesday night over what Newt Gingrich just said.
Or rather, didn't say.
The video/cyber punditocracy was calling the former House speaker "graceless" and "strange" (see also: nasty and angry). All because Gingrich -- freshly trounced by Mitt Romney in Florida's 50-delegate, winner-take-all Republican presidential primary -- just gave a concession speech that didn't concede anything.
Didn't concede he'd lost. Didn't congratulate Romney for winning. Didn't muzzle, for even a nanosecond, his attack-dog instincts. He called the politically born-again front-runner dishonest and, even worse, a "Massachusetts moderate."
So, to understand what awaits the winner, we must first focus on the night's big loser.
We begin with a positive note: Gingrich's election-night remarks were borderline namby-pamby when measured against America's gold standard for concession irascibility. It was set way back in 1966 by California's irrepressible prankster, politico and career-long nemesis of Richard Nixon: Dick Tuck. Soundly defeated in a state Senate Democratic primary, Tuck walked to the microphones and eloquently yet pithily conceded:
"The people have spoken -- the bastards."
Somewhere down deep, Gingrich's last shred of self-restraint stopped him from saying something similar that surely was welling and raging within. Instead, he stood before a sign saying, "46 states to go," and reflexively firebombed his perceived twin evils: Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.
In the process, Gingrich finally used a political construction I'd expected him to deploy months ago: a reprise of his 1994 "Contract with America." That package of promises led Republicans to capture the House, winning him the speakership he had to resign just four years later at the insistence of GOP colleagues.
Tuesday night, Gingrich announced a 2012 Contract with America. It was just a new packaging of the old promises he'd uttered at every stop about what he will do on Day One of a Gingrich presidency.
Plus an added starter. In an apparently belated pitch to woo Floridians who'd just rejected him, Gingrich promised to "open" a U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem (he meant moving it there from Tel Aviv) and then bizarrely promised to "recognize Israel!" Oops. Actually, President Harry Truman did that on May 14, 1948, making the United States the first nation to recognize Israel. Three days later, the Soviet Union did so, too.
We can guess that Gingrich meant he would recognize Jerusalem (all of it?!) as Israel's capital. Never mind that for decades, wiser Republican heads realized this would be a deal-breaker for the Arab world and always carefully said Jerusalem's status must be part of a comprehensive agreement.
By then, Gingrich was ecumenically pouring gasoline on all glowing embers. He went on to utter the sort of hateful overstatement that made him the fallen speaker that he is today. He said the Obama administration has "declared war" on the Catholic Church and other religious institutions. And he vowed to repeal "every anti-religious" Obama act.
It was classic Gingrichian deceit by distortion, a model for Romney of what not to do. Desperate to reclaim his shattered fame, Gingrich has become a man without shame. He is a self-deluded crusader in a holy war he cannot and will not win.
Yet, with third wife Callista ever at his side, beaming an approval he clearly craves, Gingrich is now window-shopping the 46 remaining state contests as though they are aisles at Tiffany's.
Practically speaking, the GOP race has narrowed to a contest of I'm-Not-Newt vs. I'm-Not-Mitt. Trailing them is one more candidate: It is We're-Not-Them. You still know them as Rick Santorum-Ron Paul. These national-security opposites have somehow morphed, without meaning to, into a combined force that is part political conscience, part political annoyance. Rick-Ron is running on shoestrings, hoping to be influential and maybe find a graceful way out.
Not Newt. Gingrich has found the one and only way he can become a deciding force in 2012. He can bash and trash his party's ultimate nominee until he ensures that even a president saddled with 8-plus percent unemployment can serve four more years.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.