Fineman: How Lost Are the Republicans?

Sure, F. Scott Fitzgerald, our patron saint of self-pitying oblivion, declared, "There are no second acts in American lives." But only because he didn't live long enough to study the modern Republican Party. Unlike the Democrats, who promptly banish their own former presidents (Bill Who? Jimmy Who?), Republicans have a long history of summoning disgraced or discarded leaders back from their Elbas. Richard Nixon was supposedly finished after losing in California in 1962; Ronald Reagan was written off as an old has-been after 1976. Maybe it's the men's-club mentality of the GOP: once you're in, you're never, ever out.

Can Newt be next? A decade ago he all but disappeared, stepping down from the House Speaker's job in the wake of political humiliation on the Hill and stories of sordidness in his personal life. He laid low, but he never quite left town. He wrote -historical-fantasy books. He started a think tank and a lobbying business. He married for a third time and converted to Roman Catholicism. Now almost 66, he is no longer an enfant terrible, but he is still formidable.

At the dawn of the Obama era, Gingrich has remade himself as the anti-Obama. He is arguably the GOP's most influential strategist and cheerleader, and a provocative scold of the administration. Where Obama exudes the new Washington equanimity, Gingrich exalts in the old-school insult. He is ruthless in caricaturing anyone who gets in his way as a "pagan" or "statist" or "socialist" or "racist"—all words Newt has hurled in recent days. And so, wounded, rudderless and leaderless, GOP members of Congress and others on his voluminous e-mail list have returned to hear the gospel according to Newt. They speak of him with the awe of disciples. In a party without a frontrunner for 2012, admirers talk about him as a presidential candidate. "I do wish that he would run," says Joe McQuaid, publisher of the Union-Leader in Manchester, N.H., still a beacon for the right. "He has a lot to offer conservatives." Yet it is hard to shake the feeling that Gingrich's new prominence is more a sign of the GOP's desperation than faith in its future, and that his reemergence is more likely to hurt the party than help it.

What Newt brings now is what he's always brought: a savagely acute sense of how to attack The Powers That Be (as long as they are Democrats); a history professor's sweeping feel for societal trends; and a grifter's gift for claiming expertise about certain things he doesn't really know at all. (That would probably include my book, which he was kind enough to blurb; I admit to a sneaking suspicion that he never read a word of it.) No one can match Newt's talent for advancing the conservative credo of individualism and faith in markets. At times his certitude takes on a cartoonish quality. Last week he unleashed a too-clever critique of the president's goal of a government-backed health plan, saying health care is a human right that cannot be rationed by Washington. He assailed Barack Obama's anodyne declaration that we are all global citizens as a dangerous threat to national security.

It is impossible to take him seriously when he says things like this. That is unfortunate, because Gingrich is capable of seriousness. His thinking and research on health care—he was among the first to grasp its importance in the early 1990s—is respected, even by the White House. The odd-couple arrangement he formed with Bill Clinton when Gingrich was House Speaker deserves to be held in higher regard. Welfare reform was one result. It is still reviled on the left, but it freed the Democrats of a stigma (the party of giveaways) that had hampered them for decades.

Yet there is no getting this Newt without the other. His weakness for combat may be fueling his popularity on the right at the moment, but it's a poor substitute for a strategy to rebuild the party—and would likely spell his doom in a contest against Obama. There are, after all, reasons why he was banished years ago. GOP stalwarts remember that his imperiousness as House Speaker and his sometimes juvenile public behavior led friends to plot against him. Insiders doubt that he will ever learn to control his acid tongue. "Newt is our great idea factory, but he'd be a disaster as a candidate," a prominent Republican fundraiser told me, staying in the shadows to avoid angering a man he has known for many years. "We need his thinking, but not the man himself."

Of course, in America there is always hope of reinvention and redemption. Even Nixon learned to mellow as he struggled to resurrect himself, doing a memorable drop-by on a comedy show of his day called Laugh-In. Come to think of it: Gingrich recently did The Daily Show With Jon Stewart and the audience didn't boo him off the stage. That's a second act if there ever was one.