Writing last Friday at The Des Moines Register, extreme Tea Partying Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, son of renegade libertarian Republican Ron Paul, pulled no punches in going after GOP presidential frontrunners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich:
Unfortunately, while all Republican candidates would be an improvement over the present administration, two of the current frontrunners simply do not represent the tea party, the conservative movement, or the type of change our country desperately needs in 2012.
Let me begin with the most obvious reasons:
Both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich supported the outrageous $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, bailouts — “one of the most unpopular government programs in American history,” even according to President Obama’s own Treasury Department. Both Romney and Gingrich have been outspoken and unapologetic supporters of the individual mandate. This is the heart and soul of ObamaCare. Since the tea party started as a reaction to Republicans who voted for TARP, and was strengthened into a national political force during the fight over ObamaCare, I believe this disqualifies both Romney and Gingrich from tea party support.
And then he specifically targeted Gingrich, who “began his career as a Rockefeller Republican from the liberal wing of the party” and whose “heart is still there,” who was a lobbyist for Freddie Mac, and… well, you get the picture. Basically, “Gingrich is not from the tea party” and “is not even a conservative.” He’s a member of “the Washington establishment” and “has been wrong on many of the major issues of the day.”
Most of this is ridiculous. As a long-time lawmaker, Gingrich certainly has a more nuanced record than an ideologue like Paul, who just arrived on a scene a few years ago. And, sure, Gingrich has been pragmatic, allying with Democrats at times and also taking positions out of line with right-wing Republican orthodoxy, and particularly out of line with Tea Party extremism. But he’s still a conservative, whatever his occasional lapses on issues such as climate change (like when he befriended Nancy Pelosi) and immigration.
What’s interesting here is, first, how Rand characterizes himself. He describes himself as “a U.S. senator elected from and by the tea party,” not as a Republican. But what’s also interesting is the severe litmus test Paul, one of the most influential Teabaggers, is applying to the GOP presidential race. If even Gingrich isn’t conservative enough, and he’s certainly more conservative than Romney, then what? Or, rather, who? Rick Perry is more theocrat than Teabagger. Michele Bachmann probably qualifies, but she’s an also-ran at this point. So who else could there be?
Ah, yes, Papa Paul.
While the race has turned into a Gingrich-vs.-Romney battle, with Newt now pushing back against Mitt’s attacks, Ron Paul is lingering as a solid third-place candidate. He won’t win the nomination, but he has a loyal and intense following of libertarian Republicans and could do well enough in some states, including Iowa, to influence the outcome. Indeed, the latest RCP averages have him tied for second with Romney in Iowa at 17.4 (well back of Gingrich at 29.8) and running a solid third in New Hampshire (though also well back in South Carolina).
So perhaps Rand is just shilling for Ron, trying to make the case that Newt’s not the right Tea Party choice. Perhaps he even understands, as Conor Friedersdorf does, that a Gingrich win would be a disaster for the Tea Party.
Whatever the case, there’s no denying the ongoing influence of the Tea Party in the GOP and how unsettled the situation remains. Gingrich has emerged at just the right time, and a big win in Iowa followed by a strong showing in New Hampshire and a win in South Carolina and then Florida could very well propel him too far into the lead for anyone to catch up. But it’s clear that a lot of Republicans, Rand Paul included, aren’t happy with Gingrich and that, to them, the alternative, Romney, is even worse. And it may already be too late to stop Newt.
So what can they do? Keep promoting Ron Paul, perhaps, though Paul would be even less likely to be able to unite the party, regardless of what his die-hard loyalists think.
Really, though, is it any wonder Republicans are already in a state of near-panic? Denial may be holding them back, but reality is about to take over. Not least because a Newt win is looking more and more inevitable.
(Cross-posted from The Reaction.)