Many Republicans are terrified at the prospect of being led by Newt Gingrich - GOPers on Capitol Hill reportedly say, "This guy is going to kill us if he gets the nomination" - and it's easy to understand why. His Sunday morning appearance on Face the Nation was Exhibit A.

In the midst of his latest demagogic harangue about the federal judiciary - as president, he vows to crack down on judges whose rulings displease him - Newt again insisted that any errant judge should be subpoenaed and hauled in front of Congress to explain himself.

Whereupon host Bob Schieffer said: "I just want to ask you from a practical standpoint, how would you enforce that? Would you send the Capitol police down to arrest him?"

Gingrich: "If you had to. Or you'd instruct the Justice Department to send a U.S. Marshall...Then I would encourage impeachment. But before you move to impeachment, you'd like to know why" the judge ruled the way he did.

Ah yes, this is the real Newt - the reckless Newt in touch with his inner thug - that veteran Newt-watchers saw so often during his brief mid-'90s heyday. The real Newt's hatred of so-called "activist" judges (i.e., judges whose rulings he doesn't like) is so unhinged that two recent attorney generals, Michael Mukasey and Alberto Gonzales, have stood up to voice their revulsion.

Gonzales said last week on Fox News, "The notion or the specter of bringing judges before the Congress, like a schoolchild being brought before the principal, is to me, a little bit troubling...I cannot support, and I would not support, efforts that appear to be intimidation or retaliation against judges." And Gonzales was restrained, compared to Mukasey: "Mr. Gingrich's proposal is dangerous, ridiculous, totally irresponsible, outrageous, off the wall, and would reduce the entire judicial system to a spectacle."

And those guys were George W. Bush appointees, no less.

What's most amusing is how Newt tries to dress up his dictatorial impulse with grandiose phraseology - witness his reference yesterday to how the Founding Fathers intended "a Montesquieu spirit of the laws," and his boast that "no other presidential candidate in modern time has launched" such an "intellectually defensible" assault on the judiciary.

At the risk of offending any grassroots conservatives who truly view Newt as a big brain and latter-day Montesquieu, I'll state the obvious: This guy is a throwback to the snake-oil salesman who traveled the frontier towns of the old West, passing himself off as a doctor with dual degrees in British medicine.

Newt's "intellectually defensible" stance falls apart at first glance. The Constitution specifically shields federal judges from the partisan passions of the political world; it does this by granting them lifetime tenure, and by stipulating that they can be removed from the bench only for egregious personal or unethical conduct. Nothing in the document permits politicians to hold judges accountable for rulings that the politicians don't like. No provision decrees that a president can summarily ignore rulings that tick him off. (Newt vows to ignore rulings that tick him off.)

Newt did sorta concede yesterday that not all wrong-ruling judges should be hauled in front of Congress; in his words, "I think it depends on the severity of the case." But who's going to define "severity?" Talk about a slippery slope. According to Newt's criterion, "severity" occurs when a judge's ruling is "out of sync with an entire culture."

But, by constitutional design, an independent judiciary is not supposed to tailor its rulings to public opinion as reflected by the prevailing culture. It's surprising that Newt has overlooked that fundamental detail, given how he fancies himself to be so intellectually erudite.

If Newt's beliefs were in force back in 1954, all nine judges of the U.S. Supreme Court would have been hauled in front of Congress to explain why they favored desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education. After all, their ruling came at a time when racism was entrenched in the culture and in public opinion. The southerners who ran Congress in that era would have lambasted the judges for flouting of the public will. Under Newt's criterion, the president similarly would have declared the historic ruling to be unacceptable.

But to best grasp why Newt's idea is a can of worms, consider this: If a Republican president can harass or seek the removal of federal judges who rule the "wrong" way (Newt would target those who, in his words, promote "the steady encroachment of secularism"), then what's to prevent a Democratic president from going after conservative federal judges? Rest assured, Newt's head would explode if President Obama ever defied court rulings and went to war on judges in the manner that Newt suggests.

As Michael McConnell, a former Bush-appointed federal judge, reportedly remarked the other day, "You can't have it both ways. It can't be that when conservative Republicans object to the courts, they have the right to replace judges. and when liberal Democrats disapprove of the courts, they don't. And the Constitution is pretty clear that neither side can eliminate judges because they disagree with their decisions."

So here's the bottom line: Either Newt really believes his snake oil (in which case he's willfully mendacious) - or he's pedaling it for short-term political gain, knowing full well that judge-bashing turns on the religious conservatives that he badly needs in the Iowa caucuses 15 days from now (in which case he's calculatedly cynical). Either way, in terms of judging Newt's unfitness for the presidency, his assault on judges is Exhibit A.

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Rest in peace (not), Kim Jong Il. The best joke circulating in the Twittersphere is that God awarded Vaclav Havel and Christopher Hitchens the opportunity to pick departee number three.

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Hey, have some fun: Test your wits by taking my annual year-end political trivia contest, which ran here yesterday.

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