In the Republican primary, everyone will get a chance to be a front-runner, even, apparently, the left-for-dead Newt Gingrich. With just six weeks to go before voting begins in Iowa, could Gingrich have just enough time to prove himself viable before history repeats and he self-destructs?
Unlike past campaigns, there has been no barrier to entry in this Republican field, where the less you know, seemingly the better. Gripped by anti-intellectualism, the party has successively swooned over Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Texas Governor Rick Perry and Herman Cain.
Perry repaid the infatuation by sleepwalking through debates, ultimately looking like a fifth grader who didn’t do his homework when he couldn’t, oops, remember a third Cabinet department he was hellbent on destroying. Cain came to Perry’s rescue, making the Texas governor look like Einstein after Cain required a political lifetime to summon a position on Libya -- only to come up empty.
In Gingrich, Republicans at least have a candidate who, unlike Cain, understands that the Taliban aren’t threatening to take over Libya (although Gingrich was for President Barack Obama’s intervention there before he was against it). Republicans can be certain that Gingrich’s overactive brain won’t freeze when confronted with rudimentary questions. It may, however, overheat.
Gingrich has a hundred ideas, many of them half-baked, when a single consistent theme would suffice. He loves listening to his own voice and is so dazzled by his rhetorical skills that he believes he can wriggle out of the very tight spots in which he invariably wedges himself. The most recent example was his claim that he was paid by Freddie Mac not as an influence peddler, but for his advice as a “historian.” Bloomberg News subsequently revealed that his fees had totaled more than $1.6 million, which is a whole lot of history.
A Second Look
In giving Gingrich a second look, conservatives are bound to see some ugly things. Before reversing his position under a barrage of conservative criticism, Gingrich called the Medicare reform championed by Republican Representative Paul Ryan “right-wing social engineering.” Earlier this year, his campaign imploded as Gingrich decamped with his wife for a cruise of the Greek isles (which he now characterizes, incredibly, as a prescient fact-finding mission to study Greece’s debt problem). When he returned, his staff quit.
In addition to a longstanding credibility problem, Gingrich has committed multiple heresies against the conservative faith. He made an advertisement with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi in which together they promoted global-warming awareness. Gingrich called it “probably the dumbest single thing I’ve done in recent years,” an admission that won’t necessarily appease a Republican base convinced that global warming is a fraud perpetrated by scientists.
In 1986, Gingrich backed amnesty for illegal aliens and, as former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has gleefully pointed out, Gingrich was one of the many Republicans who expressed support for an individual mandate to buy health insurance before that idea was adopted by Obama.
While conservatives don’t much like Romney’s variable history on abortion, Gingrich, who recently converted to Catholicism and says he’s pro-life, didn’t do much for the pro-life cause in the 1990s when he was the second-most-powerful person in Washington. He did not defund Planned Parenthood or pass the human-life amendment. In a high-profile Republican primary in a New York special election in 2009, he endorsed the pro-choice candidate before she dropped out of the race.
These are the kinds of things that make conservatives’ blood boil. And that’s before we get to Gingrich’s post-congressional life. For more than a decade he has exploited his insider credentials to embed himself in the interlocking and lucrative system of special interests and influence peddling. For one paying client, Gingrich said that Medicare could save more than $33 billion a year if it were to encourage patients to sign “advance directives” to limit end-of-life care, a policy that Sarah Palin has since relabeled “death panels.” As historian Gingrich tries to explain away his work for Freddie Mac without actually disclosing what he did, he risks digging himself deeper into the Washington muck that the Tea Party abhors.
Gingrich has so many missteps to explain, he has set up a website featuring his own negatives (well, some of them) and respective explanations. Lots of luck there. It took a surge in the polls for his daughter to explain that Gingrich’s visit to his wife’s hospital bedside as she recovered from cancer surgery was not, as widely reported, to tell her that he wanted a divorce. He just wanted to visit.
For Republicans, Gingrich’s rise and eventual collapse may prove more embarrassing than the boom-and-bust cycles of previous candidates who claimed to be the One Who Can Stop Romney from gaining the nomination. Conservatives have to forgo so many principles -- three marriages? -- to elevate Newt, that there’s almost nothing left.
And for what? To fulfill their desire for another ritual humiliation of Mitt Romney? Someday soon they will probably have to accept that the only surge that matters is the one that leads Romney to the Republican nomination.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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