Before you dismiss Newt Gingrich for having too much “baggage” to win the Republican presidential nomination, much less the presidency, consider this:
In 1980, when Ronald Reagan emerged as the likely Republican presidential nominee, President Carter’s advisers were thrilled. They’d done extensive opposition research. By pointing to what Reagan had said in speeches, radio commentaries, newspaper columns, and conversations, they assumed it would be easy to characterize him as a right-wing extremist. And enough voters would reject him and reelect Carter.
They were wrong. It wasn’t that voters ignored Reagan’s offbeat comments. They just didn’t think eccentric statements he’d made over the years were important. Bigger things were at stake, like Soviet aggression and a stagnant economy. And Reagan had better answers than Carter.
A similar phenomenon occurred in 2003 when Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for California governor in a recall election. The media dredged up stories of his chronic groping of women. Voters, intent on ousting Governor Gray Davis, didn’t care. Schwarzenegger won and was reelected in 2006.
Republicans figured that once voters learned of President Clinton’s White House trysts with intern Monica Lewinsky and dalliances with other women, they’d turn on him and give Republicans a big victory in the 1998 midterm elections. Instead, Clinton’s popularity held steady, and Republicans lost five House seats.
The point is this: Gingrich probably has at least as good a chance of getting a pass on his various transgressions in 2012 as Reagan, Schwarzenegger, and Clinton did. If 2012 were an ordinary election year, Gingrich would be doomed by his gaffes, three marriages, and fleeting alliances with Hillary Clinton on health care and Nancy Pelosi on global warming. But 2012 is different. Republicans are fixated on defeating President Obama. They’re obsessed. They think about little else. And if that means choosing a candidate with a lurid past and a penchant for self-destruction to beat Obama, Republicans are likely to swallow hard and nominate Gingrich.
In their hearts, Republicans have always wanted a candidate who is bold and tough, and Gingrich is. They’re not sure about Mitt Romney, who is cautious, conventional, and sounds more conciliatory than Gingrich. There’s a reason Romney’s support has been stuck for months at roughly a quarter of the Republican electorate. His blandness explains it. Gingrich is anything but bland.
To rally behind Gingrich, Repub-licans wouldn’t have to forgive his past sins, just treat them as irrelevant. They already talk about how sweet it would be to see Gingrich crush Obama in presidential debates. They don’t see Romney that way.
But Romney has two important traits Gingrich lacks: carefulness and self-discipline. He doesn’t shoot off his mouth recklessly, as Gingrich often has. In May, the former House speaker practically blew up his campaign by attacking Representative Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform plan as “right-wing social engineering.” He later apologized.
Talk to any of Gingrich’s current or former associates and you hear about the “bad Newt.” This is the undisciplined Gingrich, prone, as one long-time friend says, “to overshoot the runway on something,” perhaps with a wild and inappropriate comment that’s ruinous to his campaign. Many of those who know him believe it’s only a matter of time before he runs amok.
Believe it or not, his press secretary, R.C. Hammond, insists Gingrich has gotten a grip on himself. According to Hammond, “the only thing Newt says to himself before each debate is, ‘My goal tonight is to not screw anything up.’ ”
He’s largely succeeded. True, he called Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke “corrupt” and labeled President Obama “the most effective food stamp president in American history.” And in a debate in October, Gingrich said, “If you want to put people in jail . . . you ought to start with Barney Frank and Chris Dodd.” In other debates, he said Congress should immediately “defund the National Labor Relations Board” and abolish the Congressional Budget Office. Amazingly enough, the press barely raised an eyebrow.
Even when Gingrich made a specialty out of quarreling with questioners at the debates, the media response was tepid. In August, he asked Chris Wallace of Fox News to “put aside the gotcha questions.” Later in the same debate, Gingrich said he’d “love to see the rest of tonight’s debate asking us about what we would do to lead an America whose president has failed to lead instead of playing Mickey Mouse games.”
In mid-November, he took on Maria Bartiromo of CNBC, after she gave GOP candidates 30 seconds to outline their alternative to Obamacare. “An absurd question,” Gingrich said—before answering it. In still another nationally televised debate—Gingrich has participated in 11 of them—he sparred with Scott Pelley of CBS News. In that tussle, he easily shot down Pelley’s quibble.
Yet in all this, the media didn’t begin to push back until Gingrich started rising in the polls. It was too late. Gingrich had already reaped accolades from Republicans and conservatives for standing up to the media.
The irony is that Gingrich, more than any other candidate, is indebted to the media. Without the debates, he’d be a hopeless also-ran. Last June, his campaign was at death’s door. It was heavily in debt. Most of Gingrich’s advisers had quit. Only his strong performance in the debates saved him from humiliation and defeat.
Gingrich turns out to be a shrewd analyst of himself and his prospects. He has told friends he’s like Richard Nixon, not particularly likable and hated by the press and the left. He’s hardly a perfect candidate, but against a weak field, he can win the nomination and beat Obama in a tight race. And by the way, he’s the best of the bunch in connecting with the populist yearnings and resentments of average Americans.
Months ago, Gingrich foresaw his emergence as the chief rival to Romney. No one else did. The expectation was that Romney would face a challenger from the right. Gingrich, associates say, may be slightly to the left of Romney. It’s hard to tell. We won’t know for sure unless the two go head-to-head after the Republican field shrinks in January.
The Republican race, in Gingrich’s view, is a tortoise and hare contest. Who would have thought Gingrich, the flashy talker, would see himself as the tortoise. If so, he’s a cocky tortoise. In the end, we all know who wins.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.