The GOP establishment better get used to Newt
A rhyming commentariat chorus inside the GOP wrote Gingrich off. But now he's back — and he's not going away
Newt Gingrich gives hope to baby boomers everywhere. Perhaps they, too, can have yet another career. Historian, speaker of the House, novelist, quasi-lobbyist, consultant, commentator — and now Newt may be on a glide path to the Republican nomination. Perhaps I can aspire to conduct the Metropolitan Opera.
That's as far-fetched as Gingrich's chances seemed last summer, when his advisers presciently deserted him for the fast-rising and, as it turned out, slow-witted Rick Perry. Newt was rated down, ridiculed, and written off by a rhyming commentariat chorus inside and outside the GOP — by everyone except... well, his wife, Callista. When the LGBT leader and veteran progressive activist David Mixner wrote months back of a Gingrich comeback, his friends wondered and warned: What was he seeing that everyone else was missing? Seldom if ever has anyone been so dismissed, so many times as the Tea Partier from Tiffany's — and risen so fast from the ashes of the op-ed pages.
The odds are that if Mitt don't fit, Newt must be it.
Now the no-to-Newt narrative has shifted; columnists who constitute the conservative college of cardinals rage against his brilliant self-resurrection: He's unthinkable, unfaithful, unstable, and unelectable. Just ask George Will, Peggy Noonan, Charles Krauthammer, or even Andrew Napolitano, who's more postulant than right-wing prelate, and who on Fox's Freedom Watch paired Gingrich with Obama as "enemies of freedom." They're crazed about Newt — and so he's branded as crazy.
Thus the GOP establishment's immune system has swarmed against an invader who doesn't belong in their body of acceptable contenders. But this year, it's not the cardinals — politicians or journalistic keepers of the conservative faith — who get to send up the white smoke of election, or the black smoke of rejection. Instead, it's increasingly plain that primary voters aren't taking instructions from their betters, but deciding for themselves. The last vestiges of the orderly, obedient Republican Party are being swept away.
The tide gathered new force after this past weekend's ABC debate. Romney, whom doubters among the establishment once disdained but would now settle for, is limping and losing ground. He shot himself in the foot when he was supposed to trip up and slow down Gingrich. Stuart Stevens, the adviser with tight control over the wind-up Romney, had to spin an awkward defense when his candidate blithely slipped the leash and challenged Rick Perry to a $10,000 bet as if it was a two-buck wager. It was an instinctive reflex for Mr. 1 Percent, showing how out of touch he is with the other 99. Stevens offered that it was "a very human thing to do." To virtually everyone else, it was a very rich thing to do — and very stupid.
Romney's pratfall confirmed his fade — and Gingrich's strong performance ratified his rise.
And it is not just the course of the debate, but an underlying reality that has brought the Republican Party to this improbable moment. Simply put, the millions of true believers who almost certainly will pick the nominee are convinced that Gingrich at heart is a conservative, and Romney is a contrivance. Newt may have sat on a couch with Nancy Pelosi to discuss climate change, but that transgression pales in comparison to his status as the architect of the GOP revolution that in 1994 captured the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years — and then reformed welfare and, in an act of theft from Bill Clinton, can claim credit for balancing the budget. Beyond this, to an almost preternatural degree, Gingrich the candidate now speaks and resonates with the driving impulses of the primary electorate. He connects — and Romney is a well-financed, well-rehearsed, well-coifed disconnect.
With barely three weeks left before Iowa, the ABN movement — Anybody But Newt — is left with wishes and arguments that may prove as weak as they are obvious.
Romney has to hope for a Ron Paul surge, with the quirky septuagenarian, even more anathema than Newt to the GOP elite, catching Gingrich in the final days. Paul would never be the nominee, the calculation goes, but he could wound or dispense with the frontrunner, and let Romney resume his rightful place. Others wish for a Perry revival, a Bachmann rebirth, or even a Santorum twitch — which is a last ditch measure of their desperation. Jon Huntsman, of course, waits in New Hampshire to siphon support from a depleted Romney — and thereby boost Gingrich.
The standard disclaimer is that anything could happen. Romney himself could even win Iowa. Unlikely at best. One Obama adviser thinks that the anti-Romney animus is so embedded in the GOP that if Gingrich stumbles, Perry actually might be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Even more unlikely. Roger Simon pungently argues on Politico: "Perry... has as much a chance of getting the Republican nomination as Luke Perry! Or Perry Como!"
Then there are the customary arguments against Newt — five of them, some of them assumptions, others irrelevant to voters or flatly untrue.
First, Gingrich doesn't have the organization or the money; Romney does. In the era of social media, organization, even in a caucus state like Iowa, is less and less important. Voters can get to their caucus on their own — and even if a well-oiled campaign transports them there, they can support someone else. Steve McMahon, Howard Dean's media strategist, recalled the nightmare of caucus night in 2004, when he watched Iowans who'd said they were for Dean walk across the room to join the Kerry forces. Dean — and arguably Dick Gephardt — had a broader organization in Iowa over a longer period of time than John Kerry did. It didn't matter — and it matters less now.
As for money, it follows the polls — and the results. The Gingrich fund-raising will pick up quickly. And if he prevails in Iowa? Kerry, who had to mortgage his house to compete in the caucuses, went on to raise $150 million during the primary season.
Second, Gingrich will blow himself up. On the evidence to date, this appears to be caricature, not analysis. Given his protean expostulations, he does make mistakes; the GOP rank and file may just not care. Newt has a deft capacity to turn the story; thus his call to change child labor laws so students could do janitorial duty and inner-city kids could take a job was swiftly recast as summer internships and work experience to break the cycle of poverty.
And the evidence also suggests that Romney, who is a portrait in caution, is the one more likely to trip over his tongue. In the ABC debate, he not only blurted out his $10,000 bet, but violated one of the essential rules of such exchanges: Don't recycle lines your opponent is prepared for.
He did that in his 1994 race against Ted Kennedy, accusing him several times of using his office for financial gain. Romney was wrong on the merits, but it was an incredible charge to level at Kennedy, who decked him with one line: "Mr. Romney, the Kennedys are not in public service to make money. We have paid too high a price."
Not having learned from this history, Romney repeated it. On ABC, he walked right into a punch by repeating his claim that unlike Gingrich, he wasn't a career politician. Lying in wait, Newt decapitated him. "Let's be candid," he said with a half smile. "The only reason you didn't become a career politician is that you lost to Teddy Kennedy in 1994."
Third, Gingrich will be undone by personal scandal. This one is predictable, tired, and unavailing — even and perhaps especially with most evangelical voters. Newt — portly, grandfatherly — honors the question and then calmly admits his mistake, testifies that he's asked God for forgiveness, and asks voters to judge him on who he is now. In his case, redemption appears to be good for the soul — and the polls.
Fourth, Gingrich lacks the temperament to be president. It's an insider's argument, the remembrance and resentments of things past — and it's contradicted by the candidate's ease on the stump everyday, by his sense of command in the debates, and by his skill under pressure.
Do voters really care that in the 1990s Newt sometimes lost his temper — or was overbearing in dealing with his colleagues? Bill Clinton could be volcanic with staff members, but the public never saw it, and it never mattered in 1992 or 1996.
And do voters care if a candidate, or a president, isn't always tightly organized or operating within the neat boxes on a flow chart? FDR famously disdained any such constraints, and internally his White House was often a successful exercise in creative overlap and intentional confusion. Tony Snow, later press secretary to the second George Bush, was a speechwriter for his father. He told me that White House operations could be both frustrating and chaotic.
Finally, there's electability, a rationale — or rationalization — that's eroding and could evaporate.
Right now, it's edging close to margin of error stuff. In recent surveys, Romney beats Obama by three in Florida, and Gingrich loses by two; in North Carolina, Romney ties and Gingrich is four behind; in Ohio, they're both one point ahead of Obama. Pennsylvania makes Romney's case — sort of. The president leads Romney by three, and Gingrich by eight. Similarly, the new Marist/NBC poll reports something of an Obama turnaround in Florida, with Mitt the losing the matchup by five fewer points than Gingrich does. I doubt such differences are big enough to persuade grassroots Republicans to pick the expedient they distrust over the conservative they prefer.
There are other factors which suggest Newt could narrow or erase the gap. He has more appeal to Hispanics than Romney, who's gone pretty much all in with the anti-immigrant crowd — and of course, flip-flopped along the way. Romney the job creator will be less appealing as he's revealed to be a profiteering job destroyer — a process that's only just begun. And the more voters see him, the longer he campaigns, the less they seem to like him. In the PPP data, he's slipped from a 2-to-1 favorable among Republicans in Iowa to a flatline 49/45. There's no reason to assume that isn't a leading indicator.
If and as Gingrich moves toward the nomination, expect that the ABN forces will yield only reluctantly — and with a last round of bitter blasts. In The New York Times, David Brooks attributed Newt's success to the fact that "most people just want somebody who can articulate their hatreds." That says less about Gingrich than about the GOP establishment's condescending view of GOP voters — and it speaks volumes about the gap between the elites and the electorate in the 2012 Republican Party.
The elites have one other fallback. There is already talk about a new candidate, "a savior candidate... starting late." This is a perennial chestnut in both parties. Don't bet $10,000 on it. The odds are that if Mitt don't fit, Newt must be it.