Newt Gingrich is a historian.
An historian, as they say in the historian trade. Which only historians are allowed to join. But not you. You are not an historian. In fact, you are probably a Saul Alinsky radical or a member of the liberal news media. Nor did you work with Ronald Reagan. Newt worked with Ronald Reagan. He’s too modest to tell anyone but Newt was the driving force behind all of Reagan’s successes, like tax cuts, military build-up, and the Strategic Defence Initiative. Also: Berlin Wall? That was Newt. Knocked it down with a hardback copy of one of his bestselling books. Yes, Ronald Reagan was a valued member of the Gingrich administration.
As if all that wasn’t enough, Newt wants to make history. To be sure, he’s already the first Speaker of the House of Representatives to be censured for an ethics violation. The first to pay a $300,000 fine for said violation. The first Speaker to have forced the resignation of a predecessor over (trumped up) ethics charges only to have his own resignation forced upon him by exasperated colleagues. But he’s set his heart on becoming the first censured, first fined, first ousted Speaker to be elected President of the United States.
And Republican voters seem to be going along with it. Gingrich won the South Carolina primary handsomely and, according to Rasmussen, he has overturned Mitt Romney’s 22-point lead in Florida and now outpolls the former Massachusetts governor by seven points. Although his muted performance in Tuesday night’s debate – on NBC, where the commercial breaks are known as ‘mercy interludes’ – might narrow his lead, he’s in a strong position to win the Florida primary on January 31. At which point the Romney campaign freaks out and Gingrich gains momentum.
Conservative and Tea Party Republicans, who consider Romney’s healthcare reform in Massachusetts to have been the blueprint for Obamacare and its author therefore candidatus non grata, welcome the Gingrich surge as their last chance to nominate a right-winger. The fact that Gingrich isn’t right-wing has escaped their notice. Newt’s reputation as a reactionary is based on his (failed, disastrous, wildly unpopular; I could go on…) impeachment of Bill Clinton and his tendency to issue crazy pronouncements like suggesting children get jobs as school janitors or that the Palestinians don’t exist. Newt talks the language of the conservative movement; he pushes the right buttons. He tells grassroots activists: ‘I was with you in the trenches in the 80s’, and it sounds right so it doesn’t matter that he was most likely in Tiffany’s while they were pounding lawn signs for the Gipper.
His record as a conservative is somewhat more prosaic and points to Jack Kemp-style ‘big government conservatism’. He boasts about volunteering for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign but fails to mention his work for liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller. He endorsed liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava in the 2009 New York special election, from which she promptly dropped out, before endorsing Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman, who promptly lost. He has supported ethanol subsidies, cap and trade, the Fairness Doctrine, Medicare Part D, and an individual mandate in healthcare. When Rep. Paul Ryan (R–Wis) offered a plan to reform Medicare to make it more market-oriented, Newt condemned it as ‘right-wing social engineering’. Mr Washington Outsider raked in $1.6m in consulting fees from Freddie Mac, the failed federal mortgage provider which pumped billions of taxpayer dollars into untenable mortgages and helped precipitate the sub-prime lending crisis. He cut a commercial with Nancy Pelosi urging action on climate change, hardly a hanging offence in the eyes of the reality-based but tantamount to eco-Bolshevism for the Glenn Beck crowd. This ‘Beltway-consensus influence-peddler’, writes libertarian columnist Gene Healy, ‘does a great impression of a red-state firebrand, but when it comes to policy, “the color is blue”.’
It’s not that Gingrich is a liberal; he just wants an open marriage with conservatism.
Then again, it’s difficult to gauge what Newt stands for since he claims credit for every policy decision since the Cleveland administration. He has the courage of other people’s convictions. This ‘one-man think-tank’ seems to have a lot of freelancers working for him, particularly the 40th president. So far Newt has declared himself the originator of supply-side economics, Reagan’s 1980 victory, Reagan’s tax cuts, and the jobs created under Reagan. He continues to do this even after Romney pointed out that Reagan barely knew who Gingrich was. According to the New York Times, Gingrich has invoked Reagan’s name 55 times across 17 debates, compared to 14 for Santorum, and six apiece for Romney and Paul. (Perry also mentioned it six times but it gets counted twice because he managed to remember it at all.)
There are necrophiliacs who feel more shame about wearing dead people’s clothes.
Of course, it’s no wonder Newt tries to pinch other politicians’ policy ideas: his own are fairly demented. At a town hall meeting in 2011, he proposed building a lunar colony to explore the Moon’s mineral resources. In an effort to address the lighting of highways at night, Newt recommended building a series of giant space mirrors and positioning them to illuminate America’s roads. In the early 1990s, he floated the idea of placing the children of single mothers in orphanages to allow the government to end their welfare payments. He authored a bill to impose the death penalty on anyone caught importing more than two ounces of marijuana into the United States. And, while most candidates spout pabulum about ‘appointing judges who will uphold the Constitution’, Newt explained his plan to dispatch federal marshals to arrest activist judges, which conjures up the image of Ruth Bader Ginsburg wielding a bust of Bill Brennan in the direction of police and refusing to come quietly.
Conservatives react to Mitt Romney like Linda Blair to holy water yet, inexplicably, buy Newt as the brave new dawn of the American Right. His personal life is of no interest to me. It will be, however, to the Democrats, the media, and some Americans. Everyone in the field has their drawbacks but Newt could down a 747 with the excess baggage he carries. That baggage – personal, professional, and political – will take centre stage if he becomes the Republican nominee. Barack Obama, who has overseen a disastrous economy, high unemployment, and a spike in the number of Americans relying on welfare, will face his dream opponent.
Obama’s re-election is all but guaranteed – people rely on government more in tough times and Obama is Mr Big Government – but Romney is the only candidate who can prevent a complete collapse of the Republican vote. But the diehards don’t want him. Bombast sways the minds of the converted in a way nuance never can but Newt’s happy warrior rhetoric is a façade for opportunism and political timidity. JS Mill once called the British Tories ‘the stupid party’. If Republicans throw in their lot with Newt Gingrich, they will inherit that mantle – and lose on it.