After arriving in Florida like a rolling ball of butcher knives, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is looking less edgy and more flabby by the hour. The last four polls in Florida now show Mitt Romney back ahead (the previous four had Gingrich up).
That's at least in part because Republicans-–some conservative, some semiconservative, and some conveniently conservative–-are attacking Gingrich as a walking, talking party menace; a flu-like contagion who will lose the presidency and contaminate down-ballot Republicans with erratic extremism.
While voters in South Carolina found Gingrich’s condemnation of the news media and braggadocio about “big ideas” infectious, an increasing number of Republicans now describe Gingrich as something akin to political plague.
”If Gingrich is the nominee, it will have an adverse impact on Republican candidates running for county, state, and federal offices,” said Bob Dole, the GOP’s 1996 nominee and former Senate majority leader. Dole released a letter denouncing Gingrich on Thursday that Romney’s campaign quickly distributed. “Hardly anyone who served with Newt in Congress has endorsed him, and that fact speaks for itself. He was a one-man band who rarely took advice. It was his way or the highway.”
Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, who served as the No. 3 Republican in the House when Gingrich was speaker, told Houston TV station KTRH that Gingrich was “not really a conservative.” Conservative commentator Ann Coulter has said that a Gingrich nomination would guarantee President Obama’s reelection. Peter Wehner, a former Reagan aide, calls Gingrich "intemperate and erratic."
Gingrich is using the the attacks to rally his populist troops. “Remember, the Republican establishment is just as much as an establishment as the Democratic establishment and they are just as determined to stop us,” he told a tea party rally Thursday in Mt. Dora, Fla.
Dole remains an important figure in the party, although his attachment to it has waned in recent years and he has no links to the tea party-inspired segment of the party responsible for propelling Republicans to a House majority and Senate gains in 2010. Dole’s message, however, is not unlike the warnings that GOP veterans issued in 2010 when tea party activists nominated Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware–-hard-line conservatives who turned jump-ball Senate races into slam-dunk Democratic victories.
Dole and Gingrich have a history, and it bears a quick summary. When Dole was a member of the Senate Finance Committee and urged then-President Reagan to raise taxes to cope with rising budget deficits, Gingrich memorably branded him a “tax collector for the welfare state.”
When Dole challenged President Clinton in 1996, Gingrich negotiated the deal with Clinton over welfare reform-–removing a potent issue of contrast from Dole's campaign quiver. Dole told me later that when he heard welfare reform would be signed before his nominating convention, he knew his campaign had no chance.
It probably didn’t anyway, but Dole viewed Gingrich’s decision to get welfare reform signed into law–-allowing Clinton to campaign on it as he did in his convention renomination speech–-as a political and personal affront. Dole also knew he would face an onslaught of Clinton ads linking him to the unpopular Gingrich. He did. Vice President Al Gore put a cap on this at his convention speech, when he declared “Americans will reject this Dole-Gingrich approach and all this déjà voodoo.”
In that summer of 1996, Gingrich was terrified that Republicans would lose their majority-–in part because of two government shutdowns that Gingrich engineered in pursuit of a balanced budget (which was, it bears saying, eventually achieved). In that atmosphere of panic, Gingrich pointedly advised swing-district Republicans to leave conservatism aside and do whatever it took to hold their seats.
“For the marginal members, being speaker of the House, I’d say to them: Talk to your pollsters, do what gets you reelected, and call home afterward,” Gingrich told The New York Times editorial board.
Dole and other Republicans are now telling GOP primary voters to avoid what Gingrich was forced to advise when he led the party as speaker–-a mad race toward political expediency created by an agenda that had grown unpopular and threatening to the party’s long-term health.
This is not the only line of attack Gingrich has had to confront. Now brought into question is Gingrich’s fidelity to Reagan. There are several print and video examples of Gingrich trafficking in allegedly anti-Reagan apostasy. Some are contrived. For instance, a 1988 clip of Gingrich predicting that then-Vice President George H. W. Bush would lose if he ran like Reagan was actually advice for Bush to develop an authentic conservative platform of his own and distinguish himself as a new leader for a new time. In fact, Gingrich in that clip-–circulated by the Romney campaign to suggest Gingrich was abandoning Reaganism–-specifically praises Bush for his “no new taxes” pledge. He made that pledge while campaigning for the New Hampshire primary–-in which he defeated Dole.
Former State Department official Elliott Abrams wrote in National Review this week that during the Reagan administration, Gingrich "often spewed insulting rhetoric at Reagan, his top aides, and his policies to defeat Communism." But anyone who covered Gingrich in the 1990s knew he held Reagan in high regard and developed much of his Contract With America agenda along the lines of what he considered Reagan’s unfinished domestic agenda, which could be carried out only with a GOP-led House and Senate. And any student of history knows it was not uncommon during Reagan’s presidency for Hill Republicans to question the day-to-day tactics and strategy of the Reagan White House. Criticism was common and sometimes done as an act of sell-preservation (Reagan had severe popularity ups and downs).
And Gingrich spurned the George H.W. Bush White House and John Sununu (Bush the elder's chief of staff, who is now an aggressive Romney promoter) by refusing to cooperate in raising taxes as part of the 1990 bipartisan budget compromise. Gingrich savaged Bush’s decision to increase taxes and used his position as party whip –- chief vote-counter -– to defeat the first version of the deal.
That decision paid significant political dividends for House Republicans who followed Gingrich – because they maintained unblemished purity on the tax issue. As a matter of governing, however, it forced the Bush White House to negotiate a budget deal with more taxes and fewer spending cuts because Bush had to seek Democratic votes to pass it. To the degree this actual history is debated and dissected in Florida or any subsequent primary state, GOP voters can decide for themselves which approach is more “conservative.”
As ever in politics, there is a lot of history here. Some of it is deeply personal. Some of it is philosophical. Some of it is tactical. All of it is about how to position and unite the party as the campaign against Obama comes into focus.
While defined broadly as the establishment versus the insurgents, the uprising against Gingrich isn’t really that monochromatic. Gingrich is a Washington figure through-and-through. Romney is backed by Republicans of established political success in Washington, but is not a Washington figure at all.
While this is advertised as a fight over conservatism, it’s really a fight over winning or what the party decides winning is about or what winning is meant to pursue. Gingrich wants to win to bring about “radical change.” Romney and the new wave of party critics contend the only thing radical about a 2012 campaign with Gingrich as nominee would be the radical loss of political clout in Congress and state legislatures across the land, along with the White House itself.
So, in essence, Gingrich is right about something. This is all about winning the future.
Sarah Huisenga contributed contributed to this article.