Mercurial Newt and the GOP Nomination: Has His Time Come?

Brian Birdnow

12/12/2011 2:25:00 PM - 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.

Still, even at this early stage of his career, Newt exhibited weaknesses and flaws. He showed undeniable brilliance, but developed a reputation as an egotist who relished controversy for its own sake. He also seemed easily distracted, lacking in organization, and (due to his very active mind) unable to concentrate for very long on a concrete agenda. These weaknesses would magnify considerably over time.

Newt lead an insurgent GOP wing and often battled his own President from 1990-92. He engineered the historic Republican victory of November 8, 1994 when he devised the famous “Contract With America” and nationalized the congressional elections. Gingrich had done the seemingly impossible by toppling the Democratic power structure in Washington and replacing it with his own Republican team, just as he had promised back in 1978.

Once again, though, the character issues could be seen lurking in the background. Gingrich, while campaigning against the permanent D.C. political class, actually lived quite well inside the Washington bubble. He used a taxpayer-funded automobile, complete with a $60,000 per year chauffer and chalked up twenty-two overdrafts at the notorious House bank during the early 1990s. Slowly but surely, Newt began to succumb to the lure of wealth, power, and status.

The Gingrich Speakership of 1995-98 represents the apogee of Newt’s public career. The GOP was confident, buoyant, and clearly driving the debate in Washington as they implemented many of the “Contract With America” campaign promises in 1995. The newly elected Speaker, Newt Gingrich, loved every minute of his short-lived celebrity, but the strange behavior persisted. Who can forget the day that the speaker brought a circus, complete with jugglers, fire-dancers, clowns (not the congressional type), and animal tamers to the stately halls of the Capitol? What about the awkward CNN-sponsored joint appearances between the Speaker and President Clinton, wherein they sparred halfheartedly over policy before announcing to the public that they were actually good friends? Meanwhile, Gingrich ignored the growing disaffection among his own leadership team. Dick Armey, Tom DeLay, Bill Paxon and other senior congressional figures complained that they couldn’t count on Speaker Gingrich because of his limited attention span and his constant shifting of gears. Finally, Gingrich refused to lead on issues like affirmative action, and the looming Clinton impeachment in the late summer of 1998.

Speaker Gingrich undoubtedly understood that real issues in play during the pre-impeachment drama were perjury, obstruction of justice, witness tampering, evidence tampering, and abuse of power. He fell into the trap, however, of trying to excuse the President’s criminal behavior because “…it was all about sex” and Clinton romping with a juvenile intern. It was only later that we learned that the speaker, himself, feared charges of hypocrisy and/or threats of blackmail concerning his own extramarital indiscretions at this same time.

Mr. Gingrich has displayed this same type of unpredictability since leaving public office. He has used his access shamelessly, like any other influence peddling politico. He has earned well over a million dollars working as a consultant for FREDDIE MAC. Finally, a warning note to all of the Republicans looking forward to watching Newt mop the floor with the teleprompter–reader in debate. Does anyone remember Gingrich blowing his debate over global warming with Senator John Kerry? That served as a classic primer on Newt’s failings. He wanted to introduce his new project called “Green Conservatism” and, to attract attention he debated Senator Kerry. Gingrich lost the debate and the argument in his opening statement when he claimed that “…global warming does exist, and there is growing evidence that it is largely man made.” The former conservative firebrand confirmed this tendency to stray off the reservation last spring with his odd accusations against Paul Ryan and his Social Security plan.

As we can see from the partial listing above, Newt Gingrich has a history of unpredictable and capricious behavior. The Romney camp is right in raising these questions, if somewhat harsh in their judgments. Their point, however, is well taken. Can the Republican Party run such a risk in the general election? They will be facing an unrelentingly hostile media, and an incumbent President Obama, supported by a one billion dollar war chest. What chance does the GOP have of winning if they run a candidate saddled with old baggage who continually strays off message. More importantly, does America need a President who is widely recognized as brilliant, but admittedly loses interest easily? Is he in the race for the long haul, and what kind of a President would he turn out to be?

Newt Gingrich is now emerging as the great non-Mitt Romney for the 2012 election cycle. He is without a doubt a remarkable but a flawed man who was a better revolutionary than a nuts and bolts leader. So, a word of advice to all the Republicans with a crush on Newt, who see him as the new conservative sweetheart: Scrutinize him carefully before you take him home to meet the family.

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