Brian Birdnow

The latest news cycles have brought tidings of foreboding for Newt Gingrich, the erstwhile Speaker of the House and now the great non-Mitt Romney hope in the Republican Presidential sweepstakes. Gingrich has risen very quickly in the polls since Thanksgiving and he now finds a large target painted squarely on his back. The attacks have been coming fast and furious as Newt continues his ascent.

Last week the Romney campaign, increasingly worried about the Gingrich surge, dispatched senior counselors Jim Talent and John Sununu to the hustings to warn conservatives that Newt has been unpredictable in the past and that his maverick streak will make him difficult to manage in the future. Talent, a former U.S. Senator from Missouri and a foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign, cautioned prospective voters about Gingrich and his penchant for “…saying outrageous things that come from nowhere and… saying them at the exact time when they most weaken the conservative agenda.” John Sununu, a former New Hampshire governor, added his own comments that Gingrich “is more concerned about Newt Gingrich than he is about conservative principle.” While many observers would dismiss these verbal Molotov cocktails as unduly critical and write them off as the ordinary type of political backstabbing directed by one campaign against another, they would be missing the salient point. In the case of Newt Gingrich, the Romney advisers are absolutely right. Newt’s tendency to stray off message and his unpredictable behavior, combined with baggage of a personal nature could spell a GOP electoral disaster in 2012.

Certainly, a review of Newt’s public career shows a disturbingly constant tendency toward mercurial statements and conduct which generally undermines the man and his Party. Gingrich first won election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1978 and immediately earned a reputation as an aggressive and hard-driving backbencher. He explained to anyone within earshot that he intended to change the balance of power in Washington by making the House of Representatives a “co-equal” of the White House, with himself as the boss. Newt moved up the ladder fairly quickly, engaging in very public feuds with then House Speaker Tip O’Neill and in mortal combat with O’Neill’s successor Jim Wright of Texas after a Gingrich-instigated ethics investigation revealed that Wright had broken seventy House financial rules.

Brian Birdnow

Brian E. Birdnow is a historian and teaches at a university in the St. Louis area.