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August 29, 2014, 2:02 am

Why Gingrich is back — for now

And now it’s Newt?

Why has former House Speaker Newt Gingrich suddenly surged in the polls from near-oblivion to the top tier of Republican presidential hopefuls? Credit short memories in the ABM, the “Anybody but Mitt” movement.

The ABM faction of the Grand Old Party has road-tested so many alternatives to persistently high-scoring former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney that they apparently have forgotten all of the perfectly good reasons why they didn’t go for Gingrich months ago.

After all, the man has baggage, personal and public, of the sort that conservatives would decry in Democrats. Twice divorced, he left his first wife following her treatment for cancer. He left his second wife for a staff member who is now his third wife, Callista. Social conservatives don’t like that.

He’s also viewed by many as ethically challenged, having been the only speaker of the House to have been disciplined for ethics violations.

Even right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter vigorously pounces on his electability. “In addition to having an affair in the middle of Clinton’s impeachment; apologizing to Jesse Jackson on behalf of J. C. Watts — one of two Black Republicans then in Congress — for having criticized “poverty pimps,” and then inviting Jackson to a State of the Union address; cutting a global warming commercial with Nancy Pelosi; ... appearing in public with the Rev. Al Sharpton to promote nonspecific education reform; and calling Paul Ryan’s plan to save Social Security “right-wing social engineering,” we found out this week that Gingrich was a recipient of Freddie Mac political money.”

Yes, the money from Freddie Mac, which Gingrich claimed during a recent debate to have been for duties as a “historian,” but later turned out to be as a consultant, is particularly damaging politically. Today’s tea party right views the government-sponsored enterprise as Public Enemy No. 1 in the recent housing and economic crisis.

But for now, at least, many conservatives are willing to overlook those negatives. They want someone who not only can unseat President Barack Obama but also promote “authentic” conservative principles.

Despite his occasional joint appearances with liberals, mostly outside of Congress, Gingrich has unquestionably conservative credentials. His “revolution” earned street cred among conservatives as instigator of a partisan divide in Congress that resulted in a government shutdown in 1995 — and persists in today’s gridlock over budget issues.

Gingrich’s resurrection came after recent debates in which he showed the ferocity of a Rottweiler, not against his fellow Republicans but against an all-purpose whipping boy, the “mainstream media.” The ABMs hope Gingrich is a guy who will spank Obama in debates. If nothing else, they long for the entertainment value.

Gingrich happily endorsed that possibility, telling Politico’s Jonathan Martin Thursday in Des Moines, “If we nominate somebody utterly inarticulate, Obama gets a billion dollars, he spends two months smearing the Republican Party with negativity and we have a candidate who can’t debate him, he might pull it off.”

But even debate victory is not a slam-dunk for Gingrich, who himself admits he has an occasional lack of discipline in staying on message. The former college professor loves to talk — and talk. After he denounced Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s radical budget, for example, as “right-wing social engineering,” he famously reversed himself and warned: “Any ad which quotes what I said Sunday is a falsehood.” At least he was thinking ahead.

When actual voting is held, I still agree with the conventional wisdom that Romney has the best chance to win the nomination. His moderate views frustrate the GOP right wing, but the party’s more mainstream voters recognize he has the crossover appeal to win. Recent polls show him beating Obama among independents these days, the always-persuadable group that ultimately decides the winner.

But I’m not writing off Gingrich or anyone else, considering how the conventional wisdom four years ago at this time was predicting victories for Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. Real votes, not just polls, will determine how far Republicans have moved to the right and whether ABM anger has a future.

 

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage(at)tribune.com, or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.