At Telegraph blogs today, my colleague Tim Stanley - a generally percipient analyst of the US political scene - claims that Newt's victory in South Carolina represented some kind of victory for the Tea Party.
Then came South Carolina, where religious and fiscal conservatives finally got it together and backed a candidate against Mitt Romney. Exit polls suggest that Newt Gingrich won by appealing to every Tea Party demographic – middle income voters, angry white men, regular church attendees etc. To put it into to perspective, these are the only categories of voter that Mitt Romney won: people with an income greater than $200,000, self-described “moderates” or “liberals”, folks who think religion doesn’t matter in picking a candidate, those who “oppose” the Tea Party.
What is this "Tea Party" of which Tim speaks? It's certainly not one that I recognize. The Tea Party I know and admire is defined by nothing except its opposition to Big Government in all its manifestations. I can't see it consciously rooting for a rent-seeking DC insider who profited from the taxpayer via Fannie Mae and who recently attacked Mitt Romney's record at Bain from the left, as if somehow creative destruction were a bad idea that needed to be extirpated by a benign, caring state.
If any Tea Partiers voted for Newt - and I'm quite sure they did, given Sarah Palin's endorsement - I'd suggest that would have been a gesture of frustration rather than ideological kinship. This doesn't mean that a character as principle-free as Newt doesn't have the ability to remould himself in the Tea Party's image. Just that if that's what he really wants to do - and I hope he will - he'd better get moving quick.