Where is the Democratic Gingrich?

I do not mean that Newt Gingrich — the one who is a virtual Michelin Man of grandiosity, pneumatically overstuffed with self-references and appeals to the political gutter. I do not mean the man whose public life has been as chaotic as his private one (and vice versa) and who is capable of the most sinister simplicities, such as the time he suggested that Susan Smith would not have murdered her two children had Republicans been in power. This Gingrich is a Rorschach test: If you don’t think he’s nuts, you are.

The Gingrich I seek is not the man above but the one of big ideas. The term gets thrown around a lot, and Gingrich himself is apt to think his every idea is BIG. His mind is always in the tumble cycle. And even when he is spouting boilerplate, he can distance himself from his worn verbiage to say something fresh or provocative or ugly — it’s all the same to him. Out of nowhere, he has exhumed Saul Alinsky, whose fame is limited to university sociology departments, and yet whose name is so perfectly evocative of old-style radicalism, vaguely European in sound, that it fits Gingrich’s recent formulation, “people who don’t like the classical America.” Who dat, Newt?

The reference, although a tad obscure, is nevertheless intriguing. It shows that Gingrich is familiar with the late father of community organizing who died in 1972, and who by occupation and residence (Chicago) is suggestive of Barack Obama. Alinsky was no communist but he was a radical, and to have his name mentioned by a presidential candidate is just plain thrilling — also chilling. This is the bright and the dark side of Gingrich. He knows his stuff and often can’t stop from showing off. Foe of Big Government though he be, he could not help but remind Ron Paul in a recent debate of the wonderful role the G.I. Bill played after World War II — a stellar example of what the old liberalism could accomplish.

Gingrich channels George C. Wallace, the four-time Alabama governor who ran as many times for president. Wallace exploited racial and class resentment and, at his rallies, would look at the press section and say, “There are those pointy-headed liberals who are always writin’ lies about me — and about you!’’ Afterward, he’d go chat up the press corps because he needed them like a Kardashian needs klieg lights. Gingrich, too, campaigns against the press — the odious “elite media” — and plays a modified version of the race card by linking Obama to food stamps. He insists that all he is doing is telling the truth, but the larger message is not about truth at all. It’s about racial resentment.

Still, his restless mind commends him. He has the perspicacity and the gall to advance almost any proposal, and this is good. The country is in bad shape. The middle class is eroding and poverty is growing and jobs are going overseas and social mobility is frozen and American exceptionalism has gone to Europe and Washington is just plain stuck. We need ideas.

Gingrich has both ideas and gall. Because he doesn’t like the decisions of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, he wants it abolished. The proposal has been condemned as a breathtaking assault on judicial independence, but it is no more so than Franklin Roosevelt’s plan to add as many as six justices to the Supreme Court. FDR wanted to pack the court, and Gingrich wants to unpack it. Restless minds sometimes go haywire.

Mitt Romney adds nothing to the national debate, not so far anyway. If he’s the GOP nominee, we will get more of his nonsense about running a business — tell me what great president ever ran a successful business — and how he’s a job creator. With Gingrich, it would be different. He might actually challenge Obama to think hard, to be creative, to come out of his shell, to listen to someone other than Valerie Jarrett, to swing for the proverbial fences, to blow up a cacophonous tax code (what an awful noise it makes!), to take on the public-service unions, to end the war in Afghanistan sooner than later and . . . you get the picture.

Of course, if Gingrich becomes the Republican nominee, it’s incumbent upon him to lose. He’s an unscrupulous man, a one-car demolition derby, but if he goads Obama to unaccustomed bravery and other Democrats to rethink outdated liberal dogma (affirmative action, etc.), then he will have done his nation a great service. Take a bow, Newt. Then take a powder too.