Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has now lost the Florida primary, and with that defeat he must ask himself what role he will play as a self-described antiestablishment insurgent.
For any insurgent campaign to matter, it must forcefully question, with the purpose of redirecting or changing completely, one or several of the party’s core beliefs or tenets. Insurgencies based on antipathy to the front-runner are not about changing party positions or values but about vanity, grievance, and envy. The choice facing Gingrich now reminds me of the 1992 Democratic presidential campaign. Democrats then, like Republicans now, were in the midst of an intraparty struggle and didn’t much like their candidate choices (35 percent satisfaction among Democrats in 1992, compared with 46 percent GOP satisfaction now).
Then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton survived allegations of womanizing and draft-dodging to finish a respectable second to former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts in the New Hampshire primary. Clinton then gained momentum and vanquished all but one Democratic rival—former (and again now current) California Gov. Jerry Brown. Also an insurgent, Brown (who had sought the presidency in 1976 and 1980) ran as the “un-candidate.” He was committed to uprooting the “confederacy of corruption, careerism, and campaign consulting” dominating big-money national politics. Brown embraced a flat tax of 13 percent and a value-added tax of 13 percent—an innovative idea that drove liberal Democrats crazy. He was dismissed early in his campaign that year, as he had no organization and a reputation as a flake.
As the field narrowed to Clinton and Brown, the insurgent candidate had a choice: Make the contest about party direction and ideas (such as the flat tax), or attack Clinton personally as an unscrupulous, unelectable fraud. Brown was now the liberal darling despite the flat tax, as that wing of the party had yet to warm to Clinton’s Southern roots or ideological centrism. Ideas versus pique was a real choice.
Brown chose pique. He was infuriated by Clinton’s financial backing and ability to dominate the airwaves. He found Clinton’s Arkansas dealings—especially the Whitewater case—shady and possibly criminal. Brown called Clinton “slippery,” the “prince of sleaze,” and the “Humpty Dumpty candidate.”
“There are so many scandals and so many problems, questions for Clinton, that we’re not going to put him back together again,” Brown said. “And all the media and the insiders and $1,000 donors that created the Clinton campaign can’t really sustain it.”
While Brown attracted a jubilant following among young voters and refused to accept any donation larger than $100 (he had no Sheldon Adelson, Gingrich’s $10 million Las Vegas casino benefactor), his campaign against Clinton became increasingly strident, personal, and pugilistic. It also became unhinged from political reality. Days before the pivotal New York primary, Brown said he would consider civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson as his running mate. That killed him in New York. He lost the Wisconsin primary on the same day, and the campaign was effectively over. Brown nevertheless carried his aggravation with Clinton “all the way” to the convention. Refusing to endorse Clinton, Brown won recognition on the floor by seconding his own nomination (he finished with 596 delegates to Clinton’s 3,372).
I am not asserting that Gingrich and Brown are like-minded or that their campaigns are exactly alike. Brown appealed to young audiences sick of political trimming, deal-cutting, and deceit. If anyone in the GOP field resembles this ethos, it’s Rep. Ron Paul. But Paul has never attacked Mitt Romney personally or questioned his ethics or character. Gingrich has done that for a week in Florida, each day bringing a more florid and vitriolic expression of revulsion with Romney the person, not Romney’s ideas.
If the remainder of his post-Florida campaign mimics the past week, then Gingrich, like Brown, will find himself playing to smaller crowds and growing ever-more desperate for headlines and media coverage. He will attract it, for a while, with harsh personal attacks—if he chooses. But those tactics are unlikely to prove any more successful in Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, Wyoming, and Maine than they were in Florida.
In the modern history of the Republican Party, Gingrich is a significant figure and is far more important to the rise of conservative policies than Romney. Unlike Brown, Gingrich led a national movement for his party. He was an inspirational figure who triggered political imagination and inspired others to take big risks. Many Republicans built the Contract With America, but Gingrich sold it to voters. Nobody else could have. Gingrich is not a cartoon or some flake who blew hot and cold during the Reagan years. He’s understandably frustrated with this Romney caricature.
But turning into a modern-day Jerry Brown is no way to advance his career, promote his ideas, or strengthen the conservative movement’s sense of grievance with Romney. Just the opposite. Gingrich said he lost nobly in Iowa and won with ideas in South Carolina. He lost Florida as an angry, bitter, and borderline vengeful figure. Gingrich must now decide what he’s fighting for and why. Grudges and animosity drive much of politics. Successful politicians hide it. Failed politicians wrap themselves in it.
This article appears in the February 1, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.