Newt Gingrich Just Might Be the GOP Nominee
Newt Gingrich’s campaign imploded in June. Now he’s third-and-climbing in the polls. Could he wind up being the last Republican standing?
On June 9, 2011*, Newt Gingrich’s senior campaign staff resigned en masse. In response, Gingrich decided to tour behind his new movie and make unorthodox “campaign stops” in places like Hawaii, a state which has nothing to do with early Republican primaries and everything to do with nice vacations. Political hacks of all stripes wrote him off. He was an old-news blowhard striving to become a “policy mover” in the camp of whoever wound up winning. Like Joe Biden, he’d shot himself in the foot early on. Like Joe Biden, he was probably reduced to running for Vice-President.
But history has a funny way of screwing with those who cite it in the presidential primaries. Now, magnanimous, safe, wonky Newt Gingrich looks less like Joe Biden and more like John Kerry, the eventual 2004 nominee. Kerry sat back in a furious party that had lost its way and won the Iowa caucuses on the dual premises that (a) he was a nice guy and (b) everybody else’s campaign had imploded more recently. Gingrich is taking a page out of Kerry’s playbook and molding it with the non-traditional shooting-star successes of his fellow 2012 non-Romney candidates and hoping that he’ll be the eventual winner of the roll of the dice come the Iowa caucuses on January 3. The strangest thing is, he just might be.
What Republicans Want
Right now, Republicans are struggling between two poles: electability and ideology. At the extremes of the former pole stands… well, you could argue that Jon Huntsman really stands there, but his campaign is so ineffectual as to eliminate him from serious consideration, so it’s Mitt Romney, with his sweeping claims of executive experience and heaps of money. On the other hand, Romney’s weaknesses to the Republican base (like his potential big-business albatross in a populist political climate, his potential Manchurian Candidate-style liberalism as the architect of Romneycare, and, yes, his religion) have left many Republicans feeling like Matt Wuerker’s cartoon that Politico published yesterday: even though he’s running away with the nomination, they desperately want Anyone But Mitt.
For awhile, they were lazily content with the idea that “another challenger” could always hop in. Even after the amazing meteor that was Rick Perry’s entry into the race, many rank-and-file conservatives still held out some kind of hope that someone other than Romney would sneak in and be their perfect simultaneously-rabidly-conservative-and-yet-somehow-electable candidate. Now, though, the dates to get on the ballot have come and gone, and Republican voters are stuck: after Romney won the last Republican debate with a weak performance that demonstrated how much he could get pounced on in the general, particularly with spit-out lines like “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake!”, they’re left with the current less-than-ideal crop to pick an anti-Mitt from if they really think Romney is not going to represent their interests.
“Cain, with crisis management:” Gingrich as the best of all possible Anti-Romneys
To understand how best to be an Anti-Romney candidate, you have to understand the current one: Herman Cain.
It’s telling that Herman Cain’s poll fortunes started soaring after other potential candidates like Chris Christie declined to get involved and Rick Perry totally blew his first few debates. It wasn’t like Cain was trying particularly hard. Like Gingrich, he wasn’t actively visiting early primary states. Like Gingrich, his staff was a total mess, particularly in those early states. But Cain had shown up to the very first Republican debate, featuring only “candidates not named Mitt Romney” and Tim Pawlenty (remember Tim Pawlenty?) and emerged the consensus winner. Once the “serious debates” started, Cain’s clear message and adroit salesmanship seemed like the perfect antidote to Perry’s haplessness in determining who could be simultaneously electable and “not Mitt Romney.”
The fact that Cain’s own plans were shot full of holes in the press and that Cain continued his book tour rather than seriously campaigning in early states didn’t hurt him, much to the exasperation of everyone that seriously followed him. But in many ways, it was because Cain was allowing voters to project an idealized vision of “The Perfect Candidate” (TM) onto Herman Cain. Cain, who loves to reiterate the fact that he’s a businessman, knows the value of accepting something for nothing. If he could take the lead in the polls without having to, you know, show up in Iowa or actually hire a serious campaign staff, he’d do it.
Now, as the initial sexual harassment accusations against Cain blossom into a much more serious and independently-corroborated pattern of behavior, Cain’s own lack of political finesse and an actual staff are biting him in the nether regions. To give you a sense of just how poorly Cain has managed these allegations, his campaign manager went on Sean Hannity’s radio program to accuse a journalist with the same last name as his second accuser of being related and working for Politico (which broke the initial harassment story), neither of which are true in the slightest.
Cain’s woeful mismanagement has likely punctured the idealistic bubble that floated around his candidacy. With two Republican debates coming up this week, including a network-televised hour on CBS this Saturday, we’re likely to see the same Cain that emerged whenever moderators called him on specific missteps (calling for an electrified border fence, accidentally supporting abortion as a decision best left to a woman, saying he’d negotiate with Al-Qaeda for a prisoner exchange) – defensive and stumbly, eager to pivot to his message. But there’ll be no pivoting this time, since the dream of him being competent in some way has been so heavily damaged. Even as die-hards circle the wagons and deny the allegations against Cain, nobody can deny that his attempts to fix the problem have been terrible.
So where will all those disillusioned Cain voters go? The answer isn’t so shocking: to the candidate who imploded early enough on that the memory of his incompetence can be twisted and warped into a strategy of Cain-like proportions. A candidate who spent the summer avoiding big states, wasting what money he had, and promoting his own movie rather than campaigning. The candidate who, at the debates, has transmuted his gasbag style into attacks on the media and rather sharp, wonky answers while also appearing to have gravitas in being polite to his fellow-candidates. Newt Gingrich. Don’t say it’s crazy: it’s already happening, as the Wall Street Journal and Nate Silver over at the New York Times‘ Five Thirty-Eight blog have both picked up on.
Unlike Romney, Gingrich has conservative bona fides: he shut down the government rather than compromise with Bill Clinton in 1995-6, helped draft the initial “Contract With America” that led Republicans to re-take Congress in 1994, and is now at the head of a conglomerate of interconnected conservative media companies, a comfortable mid-sized player in the “shadow network” of far-right versions of “liberal elite institutions” like publishing houses, Hollywood and Ivy League universities.
His moral failings, like the fact that he divorced his first wife while she was in treatment for cancer or was having an affair with the woman who is now his third wife while impeaching Bill Clinton, can be pushed away like the warning signs were on Cain’s candidacy. Gingrich, conservative standard-bearers can say, looks great on TV, and even his own incompetence in managing his early campaign can be turned around into a Cain-esque success story. All Gingrich has to say when asked about it in a debate was “I wanted to take my message to the people in a different way. Unfortunately, I hired old political dogs to help me manage my message, and you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Now my new campaign style is paying off, connecting me to the people, and they’re really responding. If you want to see where those old dogs went, look over to Rick Perry’s campaign staff.” Republican primary voters, desperate for a hero, will eat it up.
Electability: Gingrich as elder statesman
As the Wall Street Journal article cited above notes, Gingrich loves to toss in facts to his speeches and debate performances, like a kid taking an intro-level political science class’s final exam. Throw in every fact you can remember up against the wall and see what sticks! But Gingrich knows that sounding like you’re backing up your assertions with citations to history or insider political knowledge makes you more credible as a speaker, even if your underlying point is something like “the secular-socialist machine is the greatest threat to America’s survival” or general vagaries that aren’t actually policy ideas.
Furthermore, while neither Gingrich nor Romney are particularly likeable people, Gingrich has been around the block a few times more than Romney, and learned that an even keel is ultimately much more presentable than a flappable wonk. When his rivals went after him at the last debate, Romney swung back hard, but his jumpy insistence on doing so made it seem like the mask was coming off, and we got a glimpse of a genuinely hard-edged man who didn’t think a single one of the people on stage with him was worth his time. Gingrich, who was ousted from the Speaker’s post in 1998, knows what happens when you burn bridges and alienate potential allies as the front-runner. He may be too full of himself to avoid it at times, but his debate showings at least have been careful exercises in uniting the party and attacking the media, a very easy enemy.
Gingrich’s call for a massive set of policy debates with Obama is a dog-whistle cry for the electibility crowd. While Romney is more openly incredulous of his co-candidates’ ability to take on Barack Obama, Gingrich is twisting the knife more subtly. Can you imagine, he’s saying, someone like Michele Bachmann debating the President for three minutes, let alone three hours? What about Rick Perry? Herman Cain? All the while, he’s smiles and unity on stage even as Romney seems to be pivoting to put out brush fires. Compare us, he seems to be saying. I’m not a machine desperate to be president. With me, unlike Romney (or, more insidiously, Obama) what you see is what you get.
Conclusion: the Right’s man at the right time
Without any other candidates to turn to and Herman Cain’s own moment in the sun rapidly fading, Gingrich seems poised to seize the mantle of “anti-Romney” candidate. In the next series of debates, expect to see him go all-out for it. Gingrich, like Cain, has willingly accepted that idealistic conservative image of himself which won’t let inconvenient facts mar it, but, unlike Cain, he has the political experience and the wherewithal to actually run a real campaign.
A devastating Esquire profile of Gingrich paints him, like the recent New York Times Magazine profile of Cain, as an egomaniac obsessed with his “place in history.” The New Republic put Gingrich at the top of a list of “over-rated thinkers.” Yet in a primary electorate desperate for a candidate that is rabidly conservative, generally electable, and otherwise gravity-defying, an electorate whose attentions swing from candidate to candidate (Bachmann, Perry, Christie, Cain) in a matter of months or even weeks, Gingrich’s strange blend just might catch the wave of electoral discontent at just the right time, propelling him to a come-from-behind win in Iowa before any real opposition has a chance to materialize, just like John Kerry’s stealthy 2004 victory.
Then, once the dust settles, Republicans will be left to wonder: surely there was some other option than this stiff, twice-divorced, patrician-blowhard of a guy? Surely we should be running a stronger candidate against a weak President? Democrats who remember 2004 will look over at them, smile, and leave them to wringing their hands.
More Faster Politics: Cain’s Damage Control: How Does it Stack Up?
More Faster News: A Marine and His Dog
More from Chas Carey: Cain Allegedly Sexually Harassed Employees: Is He Toast?; Bio/Disclaimer
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore.
* – the first version of this article listed the date as June 9, 2009. Which was wrong. Blame 9-9-9 Derangement Syndrome, I guess.
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