I’ll admit that I’m as surprised as anyone at the rise of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to the top of the Republican presidential field.
On paper, his record stands against everything the tea party activists and conservative grassroots care about. He’s the consummate political insider, spending nearly his entire career in politics and around Washington. The fact that Gingrich translated his experience in government to make gobs of money should smack the sensibilities of any tea partier angered by the nexus of government and big business. He’s entertained support of the individual mandate that’s driving conservatives batty about Mitt Romney and his health care law. Even his appeal for a more liberal immigration policy did nothing to stunt his rise in Republican primary polls, unlike Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s handling of the same issue.
But there’s one character trait that Gingrich has had in spades throughout his nearly four-decade political career, one that has been rewarded by the conservative base throughout the nomination process: brashness. If there’s any commonality among the numerous conservative Republican front-runners, from Sarah Palin to Michele Bachmann to Donald Trump to Rick Perry to Herman Cain, it’s an in-your-face confrontational approach against President Obama, congressional Democrats, and the media. Conservative authenticity, on steroids.
All the Republican presidential underachievers are not hardwired for confrontation. Mitt Romney, despite his campaign’s frequent attacks on President Obama, comes across as robotic and devoid of emotion. Jon Huntsman, who spent the last two years as a diplomat, oozes wimpiness on the debate stage. Tim Pawlenty, who was trying to court the tea party, couldn’t even muster the courage to attack Romney’s health care plan, head-on, at an early debate.
A candidate “needs to have a warrior ethos to be the GOP nominee. They have to be a fighter, and they have to have some substance,” said Republican media strategist Rick Wilson.
If Democrats suffered through “Bush Derangement Syndrome” during the last decade, Republican primary voters view the current president with near-contempt, thanks to the lousy economy and a liberal governing agenda. Obama’s unpopular health care law still is driving much of that anger. Wilson said he recently conducted a focus group where Republicans were asked whether, if they had a choice, they would rather “kill Obamacare” or have killed Osama bin Laden.
“They would have killed Obamacare and waited for the actuarial tables [to] play out for bin Laden,” Wilson said.
For all of Gingrich’s flaws, he recognized that red-meat denunciations of Obama and Democratic congressional bogeymen were what the base wanted. He used the debates as a professorial jam session against Obama, deliberately avoiding attacking his opponents and contrasting his record against them. The former House speaker suggested in a recent debate that his former congressional colleagues Barney Frank and Christopher Dodd belonged in jail for their role in the subprime mortgage crisis.
Just 11 percent of Iowa caucus-goers polled in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll said Gingrich’s long-standing political experience was a reason not to vote for him, despite tea partiers’ distaste for lifetime legislators. Only 16 percent of likely caucus-goers rated his marital history as a negative in the heavily evangelical state. Republicans in Iowa believe Gingrich has a better chance than Romney (29 percent to 24 percent) of beating Obama.
By contrast, a whopping 45 percent of Iowa Republicans said they were less likely to support Romney because of his health care law in Massachusetts—a sign that his decision to defend it is still a major problem. Romney may have avoided taking an early hit thanks to the chaotic primary, but it’s now looking like a ticking time bomb ready to go off at the worst possible time.
The problem for Republicans is that the fighting mentality—with the baggage it entails—risks being a major turnoff for the independents and handful of conservative Democrats disenchanted with Obama. Gingrich’s favorable ratings in the key battleground states are, according to November polling from Quinnipiac, in the toilet—even before any negative ads start flowing against him. He’s underwater in Florida (34 percent favorable, 39 percent unfavorable), Ohio (28/44 fav/unfav), and Pennsylvania (28/42 fav/unfav).
New Hampshire has become a Republican-leaning state in 2012, thanks to Obama’s consistently low approval ratings and Romney’s regional appeal. Romney leads Obama by four points, holding the president to just 42 percent of the vote, in the new NBC/Marist poll. But against Gingrich, Obama’s number surges to 49 percent.
What’s resonating right now in Republican primaries, as was demonstrated by weak tea party candidates winning nominations in 2010, doesn’t often translate to the klieg lights of a general election. The gap between the preferred candidates of primary voters and the preferences of independents who decide the elections are as significant as they’ve been in quite some time.
It’s reflective in the gap between the conservative establishment—which is scared silly about the prospect of Gingrich emerging as the nominee—and the grassroots, who have largely forgotten or ignored Gingrich’s divergence from conservatism and glaring political flaws from his tenure as House speaker.
These tea party voters are lining up behind Gingrich because he’s been the best bomb-thrower against Obama. But ultimately, most voters want their president to get things done and fix a broken economy.
This article appears in the Dec. 7, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.