Yes, Virginia, there is a Republican establishment and, like Santa Claus, it works quietly. After it convinced reluctant conservatives to nominate Senator John McCain for the presidency in 2008 -- and he lost spectacularly to a rookie senator from Illinois -- its members went to ground.
The chastened old guard put what was left of its power in a blind trust and turned the machinery over to the Tea Party insurgency. The result: a historic win in 2010 that passed the House gavel from Nancy Pelosi to John Boehner.
The grateful graybeards have kept mostly quiet ever since. Yet faced with the terrifying prospect of Newt Gingrich winning the party’s presidential nomination, the loose congregation of White House veterans, members of Congress, fundraisers, pundits, party apparatchiks and the like creaked into action. The establishment couldn’t create a candidacy -- Governors Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels refused to answer the call -- but in the week and a half after Gingrich won the South Carolina primary, sounding alarm bells throughout the capital, it proved it could still smother one.
The establishment’s first line of attack was to reclaim the mantle of Ronald Reagan, which Gingrich had swiped in broad daylight, citing the Republican saint about 60 times over the course of 19 debates. According to Gingrich, he helped Governor Reagan become President Reagan, then worked alongside the president to create 16 million jobs.
After the Gingrich victory in South Carolina, rusty Reaganites rose up, contending that Gingrich had not only exaggerated his relationship with Reagan -- he went almost unmentioned in Reagan’s autobiography -- but that he’d had an open marriage with the Gipper.
Writing in National Review, Elliott Abrams, an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration, said that far from working as Reagan’s right hand, back in the day Gingrich had “spewed insulting rhetoric at Reagan, his top aides, and his policies to defeat Communism.” Christie called Gingrich “an embarrassment” to the party. Former Senator Bob Dole, who was Senate majority leader when Gingrich was speaker of the House, chimed in, saying Gingrich’s outsized flaws would drag down the whole party if he managed to secure the nomination. “Hardly anyone who served with Newt in Congress has endorsed him,” Dole noted.
Boom, boom, boom. In case primary voters missed any of the action, Matt Drudge used his popular website, still functioning as a digital bulletin board for the right, to neatly collate the attacks -- proving you needn’t be born into the establishment to belong to it.
By the time a choir sang the national anthem at the Jan. 26 debate in Jacksonville, Florida, Gingrich had been so roughed up by the establishment, and by more than $10 million in negative ads from the Romney campaign and its establishment allies, that he looked as limp as a dishrag. Having delivered more than his share of venom through the years, Gingrich recognized its effects, whimpering that all the nastiness made him “sad.” The night passed without Gingrich mussing a hair on Romney’s head.
Yet Gingrich will not go down without a rebel yell. In his defense, Sarah Palin tore into “establishment cannibals” who use the tactics of the left in a clash “between the Republican establishment and Tea Party and independent Americans.” Gingrich’s lucrative romance with Freddie Mac, his wayward embrace of the individual mandate in health-care reform and his affection for the Man in the Moon did not dissuade Palin, who surely appreciates that a Romney presidency would yield only a cold exile and irrelevancy for her. Typically coy, she left it to First Dude Todd Palin to endorse Gingrich while she worked Fox News and Facebook to stir up resentment against Romney.
Sarah Palin is not alone, which is why Gingrich may last awhile. Herman Cain endorsed him last week. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told Thomas B. Edsall of the New York Times that Gingrich’s support came from a Republican base eager “to see a false smarty pants decapitated by a real intellectual. He would tear Obama’s head off.”
In the end, however, the establishment is hard to beat -- especially for so imperfect a vessel of revenge fantasies as the Gingrich campaign. Gingrich has vowed to take his fight all the way to the convention. He said his new ally Palin was “correct to say that all of the elements of the old establishment are in a moment of hysteria” in trying to scuttle his campaign. He got that right. How proud the hysterics of the establishment must be today.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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