Will the Newt Gingrich boomlet sweep Gingrich into capturing the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination? Already there are signs of a shift: Gingrich is rising in the polls and (once again) becoming dismissive, arrogant and earning his reputation as of the best quote machines for journalists and supposed front runner Mitt Romney seems scared and showing it in a Fox News interview. But can it last?
The Washington Post’s Jonathan Bernstein thinks it won’t because too many GOP insiders know Gingrich — and to know him is reportedly not to love him.
What’s a bit unusual about Gingrich is that there probably is a sharp split between how Washington-connected party actors and those farther outside of Washington or with weaker connections to the national party network feel about him. That’s because he’s been out of office for over a decade, and has been treated as a campaign curiosity until very recently. So there’s been no reason for vetting information to spread from those who worked with him while he was in office to local activists, operatives, and politicians, many of whom weren’t even around when Newt resigned in 1998.
For them, the natural inclination is to assume the best about big-name Republicans, and to treat any negative stories about them as the usual garbage from the liberal media. That will change once they start hearing national conservative leaders calling Newt a “farcical character” and questioning his conservative bone fides, as Club For Growth’s Chris Chocola and others did in the Washington Post article on Newt’s policy positions this morning.
As more party actors hear negative things about Gingrich from sources they trust, they’ll quickly lose what little enthusiasm they currently have for him. After that, it will almost certainly filter down to rank-and-file voters. The Newt moment just is not likely to last very long. Too many top conservatives just want nothing to do with the guy. And for good reason.
But the problem remains: a)Mitt Romney does not seem to have endeared himself with many of his competitors in the race — although the loyalty and passion with which New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie defends Romney does negate the thesis that Romney cannot inspired loyalty from major Republican players (and I still believe the Bush family wants him particularly now that Mitch Daniels is not running). b)It’s now trite to say it but let’s be trite: if the choice is between Romney and Gingrich, many conservatives will pick Gingrich, partially because they will get their signals from the nation’s top radio and conservative talkers.
Watch the conservative radio and cable talk show hosts. If they seem to be going strongly for Romney, he could prevail. If not, it could be Gingrich.
And, I predict, if it’s Gingrich, then in November it’ll be Barack Obama.
But it’s far more likely for GOP establishment types to try and trip up Gingrich than to try and trip up Romney.
UPDATE: The Politico notes that there are now signs that the “bad Newt” is starting to surface:
Longtime Gingrich watchers see clear signs that “Good Newt” (disciplined, charming, expansive in personality and intellect) is engaging in an internal battle with “Bad Newt” (off-message, bombastic, self-wounding) as his political fortunes rise.
“Remember, this is the man of the combination of Churchill and de Gaulle to begin with,” conservative columnist George Will told radio host Laura Ingraham. “He’s the embodiment of a nation in deep peril. The stage has to be lit by the fires of crisis and grandeur to suit Newt Gingrich.”
“Gingrich always a fine a line between charming and brilliant on one hand, and eccentric and borderline dangerous on the other,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. “He’s been ‘Charming Newt’ for the last several weeks. But the last couple of days have been a reminder of his other side.”
Gingrich “only has two modes — attack and brag,” explained one veteran GOP strategist.
Bragging does not wear well with independent voters and moderate Democrats who might be tempted to abandon Barack Obama if they have concluded Obama is in over his head and pandering too much to Democratic Party liberals. The Politico piece contains the response of Gingrich backers and their defense of him, then has this:
At times, Gingrich sounds like he’s consciously striking a different and humbler tone, telling audiences that he will need their help. He asks Republicans not to vote for him, but to “be with me.”
“We have to have a team campaign,” Gingrich told Iowa Republicans at a dinner event Thursday night. “I am totally committed to a team campaign.”
During the same event, Gingrich delivered a notably moderate and non-partisan riff — that is, for a politician long known for his sharp partisanship and rhetorical excess — telling the audience: “We need an American campaign, not a Republican campaign. And we need to be open to every person of every background.”
But at the same event, Gingrich couldn’t help himself, offering comparisons between his approach to politics to Thomas Jefferson’s, and noting that he’d model parts of his campaign strategy on Abraham Lincoln’s. Only a few hours before, Gingrich bragged of having overseen the creation of 11 million jobs as speaker of the House.
“The self-aggrandizing comments probably don’t hurt him that much. They may strike his strongest supporters as a sign of confidence,” said Schnur, adding that the policy pronouncements could be a bigger issue: “These ‘porridge for poor children’ things probably don’t do him much good.”
That’s the side of Gingrich that has some Republican insiders privately fretting that, for all their worries about Mitt Romney’s failings, it is Gingrich who may be especially susceptible to damaging himself if he emerges as the party’s nominee.
“He’s going to blow up at some point, and I’m just hoping it comes before he gets the nomination,” said one unaligned Republican insider, who has worked with presidential campaigns before.
“I’m waiting for him to say, ‘Literally, I’m the smartest guy to ever run for president,’ ” said the insider, adding that comparisons of Callista as Nancy Reagan fuel the notion that he thinks of himself as a new incarnation of The Gipper. “He’s now kind of like the crazy scientist that’s having his science proven correct….and you just don’t know what the hell’s gonna happen next.”
When political parties pick a Presidential candidate they invest millions of dollars trying to get the candidate elected and assume the candidate will help others from their party who are running further down on the ticket. This further assumes a certain amount of predictability. With Gingrich, he is often unpredictable and the bragging can become grating and even raise concerns among some voters. Is this guy so full of himself that he will never seriously consider other policy options once in office than those he already wants? Does he consider himself put into office by voters or sent by God to the White House?
The only “given” is this: if Gingrich is the nominee, it won’t be dull for reporters and it’ll be a Godsend to late night comedians.
But forget the conventional wisdom: because pundits say he can’t win doesn’t mean it is impossible for him to win.
Which may be of concern to serious conservatives, as well as liberals.
UPDATE II: The Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker has a column explaining why Republicans like Newt. At the end she
The anyone-but-Mitt crowd can overlook a satchel of sins if the alternative is a flip-flopping cultist from Up There. (Please bear in mind, observation is not endorsement.)
Indeed, a man who has fallen from grace and arisen from the political ash heap is more than an ecumenical metaphor. To many Republican voters, Gingrich is “one of us,” a familiar face, a known quantity. Most important, he has done the single thing that transcends sin. He has confessed and repented.
One doesn’t have to be a Catholic to appreciate the sublime duet of confession and redemption. The ability to shed the burden of sin in a confessional booth, submit to the humility of shame and accept the grace of forgiveness is an appealing exit from the turmoil of personal transgression. No wonder the masses flock to St. Peter’s Square. (I’m feeling a little tug myself.)
Bottom line: Most Americans would rather embrace a man who has fallen and climbed back to his feet than one who has never stubbed his toe on temptation. The successful protagonist is always flawed. In Romney breaking news: He removes the cheese from his pizza but has a weakness for chocolate milk. Mr. Squeaky not only has no skeletons in the closet; he has no closets.
Republicans can characterize their preference for Gingrich as the lure of Big Ideas, but this would be more justification than explanation. Gingrich does have big ideas; they’re just mostly bad ones. At least they are untested and, in such precarious times, perhaps too risky. His two-of-everything model for health care and Social Security, for example — wherein we keep the old system but also create a new one — sounds spectacular in concept. We love a choice. But implementation is a Trojan horse of another color. If one system is breaking the bank, how much would two put us in the hole?
A few weeks ago, Gingrich was the quiet gnome on the debate panel, patiently waiting for his turn to dazzle. He was the sage father figure, certain of his certainty, benignly tolerant of the petulant children whose company he was forced to keep. Today, he is the prince of tides.
But the tides ebb and flow, and the sands shift. And well they might again.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.