The suddenly plausible chance that Newt Gingrich could run against President Obama in next year’s election has Democratic strategists scrambling to determine which lines of attack would work best against the former speaker of the House.
Their ideas are split into two strategic camps: Focus on his congressional career, which was marked by partisanship and, at times, his embrace of very conservative positions, or, highlight Gingrich’s tumultuous personal history and uneven temperament.
A strategy focused on Gingrich the man would give Democrats a chance to shift the campaign away from a conversation about Obama’s handling of the economy, where he continues to receive low marks, to a battle of personalities. Gingrich’s history of adultery and his three marriages have already caused problems for him in the GOP primary, and those issues could linger into the fall. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released late last month showed that only 35 percent of a general-election audience holds a favorable view of him, while 42 percent hold an unfavorable view.
His low favorable marks call to mind the 2004 presidential race between George W. Bush and Democratic nominee John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator. Like Bush, Obama’s personal favorability has proven resilient even if some of his policies haven’t, and that could prove advantageous against a far less popular opponent.
“Obama, for all his professional challenges, his personal life is impeccable,” said Democratic strategist Peter Hart. “Nobody can look at his family and say, ‘Gee, this is a family in turmoil, and [the candidate] doesn’t seem to have an intact set of values.’ For Newt Gingrich, it will be hard for him to trot around his third wife and suggest he’s going to be a family-values candidate.”
Gingrich’s personal history could hurt him acutely with women. They are traditionally more supportive of the Democratic Party, but favored Republicans in 2010, according to exit polls. “Well-educated women are never, ever going to warm up to Gingrich,” said Mary Isenhour, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic consultant. “Whether because of his multiple marriages, on [abortion] choice issues, or on education policy.”
Gingrich also has a well-earned reputation for expressing unorthodox views that are off-putting to segments of the electorate, such as his recent suggestion that “stupid” child labor laws prevent some poor children from working as custodians in their schools.
Part of Gingrich’s appeal is his reputation as an ideas machine, and unconventional ideas can be an asset at a time when voters are frustrated with government’s seeming inability to solve pressing problems. But he also had a reputation as speaker for being unable to focus and follow through on an idea, with most of that criticism leveled by his own colleagues in the Republican Party. The Obama campaign can use that trait to paint Gingrich as erratic, raising questions of whether he is fit for the presidency, said David Beattie, a Florida-based Democratic pollster.
“Once he says something, never let it go,” Beattie said. “It is the Obama campaign’s responsibility to remind voters of what he said about an issue. With Gingrich, it’s about calling attention to his inconsistency.”
Of course, making personality an issue in a presidential campaign is not an easy task as the country suffers its worst economy in a generation. “I think that would work in good times, quiet times, when our troops are home and everyone is fat and happy,” said Rick Tyler, a Republican and longtime former aide to the ex-speaker. “You can have a personality contest then. But that’s not where we are.”
Even some Democrats worry that a focus on Gingrich’s personality won’t resonate during a time of great economic hardship, and preach following a line of attack rooted in a tumultuous legislative history.
“Honestly, you could probably come up with 10 attacks on Gingrich that are at least as potent as that,” said Democratic strategist Jeff Liszt. “I don’t know the idea that he’s unstable is as important as his ideas are just not good for working families.”
He suggested that Gingrich’s deep ties to government—he was first elected in 1978 and in recent years profited from his long congressional experience as a Washington-based consultant—will turn off voters eager for change.
The former GOP leader’s legislative history is equally as problematic, some Democratic strategists contend. Gingrich can tout working with President Clinton on welfare reform and often highlights his role in balancing the federal budget. But the 1990s are not remembered by many as a time of comity, and independent voters may not be interested in putting an overtly partisan president in the White House.
“This is the founding father of uncompromising extremism,” said Mark Mellman, a Democratic strategist.
Charges that Gingrich’s record proves he’s extreme are “ridiculous,” said Tyler, who argued his former boss’s history proves he can deliver on his promises. “If radicalizing means balancing budgets, reforming welfare, cutting taxes, and paying hundreds of billions off debt, then we need more radicalizing,” he said.