How Newt Gingrich Threw It Away

RJ Matson, The St. Louis Post Dispatch

I’ve often noted that the more people see, listen to and think about Newt Gingrich and his career and ideas, the more they really don’t like him. He makes more sense when he isn’t high in the polls. And once he’s high in the polls, he blows it.

Yes, indeed, in Iowa he was obliterated by the mass of attack ads Mitt Romney — and let’s not play the stupid political ballet here — unleashed against him in Iowa. It was one of the most brutal political attacks in modern political history.

But don’t totally blame Romney. Gingrich has a tendency to act like a preening rooster when he’s riding high and it ain’t pretty. It’s a character flaw. He’ll make all kinds of comments that spark news stories, talk about changing the planet, and talking about ignoring Supreme Court decisions he disliked or even throw judges in jail. The National Journal’s Major Garrett notes some of the reasons why Newt Gingrich literally threw away his status as primary front-runner when he was in the middle of a huge surge:

Gingrich never committed the kind of nationally televised blunder that Perry did – failing to remember the three government agencies he would close if he became president. But make no mistake. Gingrich did much worse than Perry. And that’s saying a lot.

Yes, Perry led in September and blew it. Gingrich led in December and blew it. That’s almost impossible. At the heart of Gingrich’s downfall lay a messy mix of his worst traits – hubris, disorganization and disdain for his opponents.

Throughout his career, Gingrich has risen above these flaws. At his best, Gingrich possesses keen insights, a deep appreciation of history’s lessons, a respect for the mettle of his opponents, and a slavish devotion to creating a winning strategy and an organization to carry it out.

But when he rose in the polls the old arrogant Newt came out. It all happened during December:

Thirty-two days ago, Gingrich told ABC News there was no tactical reason [for him]to criticize his GOP rivals because “they’re not going to be the nominee.”

“I don’t have to go around and point out the inconsistencies of people who aren’t going to be the nominee,” Gingrich said. “I’m going to be the nominee. It’s very hard not to look at the recent polls and think the odds are very high I’m going to be the nominee.”

…strong>What Gingrich said next, though, stands as an act of staggering political malpractice that may lead the remaining Gingrich backers in New Hampshire and South Carolina to re-evaluate everything.

“I don’t object if people want to attack me,” Gingrich told ABC’s Jake Tapper. “That’s their right. All I’m suggesting is, it’s not going to be very effective. People are going to get sick of it very fast. I will focus on being substantive. And I will focus on Barack Obama.”

He notes that Gingrich had several lines of attack this month but kissed them off in his vow to remain positive. The lesson here is a sad one: going even relatively positive does not work at all when you are under attack.

And attack they did.

In Gingrich’s case, not responding was coupled with his hubris.

Viewed in retrospect, that bit of arrogance has to be disconcerting for Gingrich supporters.

As a result, the Gingrich who told ABC on Dec. 1 that “I’m going to be the nominee” was on Jan. 2 telling Iowans “I don’t think I’m going to win” the first-in-the-nation caucus. Hours later, Gingrich offered a clarification after a campaign volunteer berated him for pre-emptive defeatism. In Gingrich’s defense, he wasn’t wrong.

The Gingrich meltdown bubbled even hotter today, and the contrast with the previously “positive” Gingrich couldn’t be more telling or – quite probably – more damaging. The Gingrich who told ABC a month ago that he will be “substantive” and “focus on Barack Obama,” today called GOP front-runner Mitt Romney a “liar.”

Gingrich’s fury over campaign commercials savaging him – funded by an outside political group he says has direct ties to Mitt Romney’s campaign – finally boiled over in an interview today on CBS.

“This is a man whose staff created the PAC, his millionaire friends fund the PAC, he pretends he has nothing to do with the PAC. It’s baloney,” Gingrich said on The Early Show. “He’s not telling the American people the truth. It’s just like this pretense that he’s a conservative. Here’s a Massachusetts moderate who has tax-paid abortions in ‘Romneycare,’ puts Planned Parenthood in ‘Romneycare,’ raises hundreds of millions of dollars of taxes on businesses, appoints liberal judges to appease Democrats, and wants the rest of us to believe somehow he’s magically a conservative.

“I just think he ought to be honest with the American people and try to win as the real Mitt Romney, not try to invent a poll-driven, consultant-guided version that goes around with talking points, and I think he ought to be candid.”

All of these lines of attack have been open to Gingrich for weeks (Romney denies any role in the super PAC bashing Gingrich). He is resorting to them now because he’s fallen to also-ran status already in Iowa and risks embarrassing, back-of-the-pack finishes in New Hampshire and South Carolina unless he can puncture the notion that Romney is the inevitable nominee and acceptably conservative.

That Gingrich didn’t try this earlier exposes his fundamental misunderstanding of presidential politics and his own vulnerabilities as a candidate. When Gingrich was surging in early December he had to know – or certainly should have known – he lacked the money and organization to withstand sustained attacks from GOP rivals. When the attacks came, Gingrich either ignored them or danced around the charges.

Two lines of attack proved debilitating: Gingrich and his consulting company accepted $1.6 million from government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac at the height of the real estate boom; and Gingrich cut a TV commercial in 2008 with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on behalf of government action to combat global warming. Questions about both – fed or reinforced by TV commercials attacking Gingrich – came up time and again as Gingrich campaigned in Iowa.

Gingrich’s answers proved unconvincing and Iowa Republicans began to fall away in droves. In his earlier days as a GOP House upstart, Gingrich would have taken that criticism in stride and tried to drown it out by attacking his critics more venomously. This is what he began to do today on CBS, brandishing the biggest howitzer in American politics – “liar.”

Gingrich is now in for the kill — but against a Republican.

David Corn sees Newt the Destroyer:

Newt Gingrich has finally reached his destiny: destroyer of the GOP.

In a bitter and spiteful concession speech last night in Iowa—Kanye West could do no worse—the former House speaker, who finished fourth, signaled a shift in his mission. He would no longer be running to obtain the Republican presidential nomination; he would be campaigning to obliterate Mitt Romney. He would be Sherman; the former Massachusetts governor would be Georgia.

If Gingrich does pursue this march—and there are two debates this weekend in New Hampshire in which Gingrich can be a suicide bomber—Gingrich will be reaching the peak of his 30-year career as a Republican demolition man. And now his target will be the candidate the GOP establishment believes possesses the best chance of unseating President Barack Obama.

Gingrich, as is widely known, entered the House in the late ’70s, throwing bombs. He aimed them at both the stodgy leadership of the Republican House minority and at Democratic leaders, whom he routinely called “corrupt.” For years, he hurled harsh and bombastic rhetoric, routinely comparing those with whom he disagreed to either Nazis or Nazi appeasers. It was often hard to keep track of his faux historical analogies. (For a partial list of his excesses, see this run-down.)

During his venom-laced rush to the top, Gingrich sought to institutionalize his hate politics. His political action committee, GOPAC, sent out a memo to Republican candidates counseling them to use particular words when describing Democrats, such as “decay,” “betray,” “traitors,” “pathetic,” and “corrupt.

And “destroy.” Which was Gingrich’s intent—targeted first at his foes, but then, ultimately, at himself. Soon after achieving his ambition of becoming House speaker, he self-destructed. His ambition, arrogance, and lack of discipline triggered a mutiny among his fellow Republicans. He survived that episode, but after leading the impeachment crusade against Bill Clinton and suffering at the polls during the 1998 midterm elections, Gingrich (who at the time was extramaritally trysting himself) resigned the speakership—rather than face the wrath of his GOP comrades who had (once again) had enough.

Thirteen years later, it was tough for Newt watchers to feel any sympathy when he whined about the incoming attacks mounted by a Romney-supporting super-PAC. His bleating about negative campaigning was, given this historical perspective, farcical. His claim that Romney was a “liar” carried little heft—after all, Gingrich himself had recently displayed his penchant for prevarication, such as when he claimed he had been paid by Freddie Mac for performing duties as a “historian.”

But a presidential candidate scorned can be a dangerous thing.

Still I know where Gingrich would have been more dangerous:

In the White House.

1 Comment

  1. When I think of Newt, I can describe him with Clint Eastwood’s famous words; “He is a legend in his own mind”….

    Legend has it that Newt is a momma’s cry-baby devoid of concern for anybody else’s aging mom. Newt says he is an, “historical figure”. One with no statues built in city parks to remember him by, because I don’t think anybody wants too, or, ever wanted too. So in my opinion he won’t be an “historical figure” for long.

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