Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) is this election cycle’s Mike Huckabee.
With his campaign seriously underfunded – in debt, even – and almost no organization to handle such small matters as ensuring your name is on the ballot in major primary states, he has parlayed a series of strong debate performances have to commanding leads amongst voters in IA and in SC. Already leading in the polls in FL, emerging victorious in IA – which holds the nation’s first nominating contest, on January 3rd – and SC – whose primary voters have historically predicted the eventual Republican nominee – gives Gingrich momentum heading to the state’s primary on January 31st.
Which makes former Gov. Mitt Romney (MA) this year’s Hillary Clinton: Entering the race as the presumed frontrunner, and blindsided by another candidate who was never supposed to gain any traction. And now it doesn’t look like an easy coast to the nomination anymore.
Romney was supposed to be The Businessman who would guide us back to economic prosperity. He also positioned himself as The Outsider (“I don’t have a career in politics. … I was governor for four years and … I didn’t inhale.”). But the Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that 31 percent of likely Iowa caucus-goers trust Gingrich the most to deal with economic issues, as compared to Romney’s 20 percent. More surprisingly, these voters consider Gingrich to be more electable than Romney (29 percent to 24 percent).
How can this be? This is the year that voters – particularly Teapublicans – wanted to throw all the career pols out of D.C., right? How can Gingrich possibly be running as an outsider, as an anti-establishment insurgent? The Washington Post marvels, “Gingrich should be the has-been, the speaker who compromised, the career politician with a speckled past of ethical and personal transgressions.” Or as New York Times columnist Charles Blow puts it: “Gingrich milked his insider status like a two-uddered cow, but now he acts as if he was never in the barn.”
The fact is, voters in both parties perennially say they want a fresh face with new ideas but history shows that Americans either don’t really want – or don’t ever get – to vote for candidates who are truly outsiders. For one thing, “running for president is a very difficult thing to do,” The WaPo explains:
Insiders tend to have spent years priming the pump for these sorts of national bids – readying themselves for the national glare, building out their organizations nationally and in early states, preparing a policy platform and recruiting surrogates to their cause.
Outsider candidates, by their very nature, don’t typically do that sort of leg work in advance and, as a result, are forced to try to do it all on the fly. It almost never works.
“Experience matters,” said Ken Duberstein, who served as chief of staff to then President Ronald Reagan. “You have to know you’re way around to change and challenge ‘the system.”
And so, as The WaPo notes, “among Republican primary voters, Gingrich’s long history on the national stage has become an asset”:
On the campaign trail, Gingrich weaves his knowledge of the Capitol and the federal bureaucracy with a series of anti-Washington zingers, portraying himself as both an outsider appalled by the ineffectiveness of the government and the man best positioned to make change. He takes credit for challenging his party’s leadership in his early years in Congress and for battling President Bill Clinton over his four years as speaker – but also for bringing dozens of Democrats on board to enact sweeping welfare reform. By his own account, he is both a hard-liner against Washington and an eminently reasonable and successful tactician.
That combination, he says, allows him not only to win the hearts of conservative primary voters – notably tea partyers, who have helped beef up his organizations in the early-voting states – but also to make the case that he can go up against President Obama in the fall.
Gingrich is on to something. The New York Times’ Matt Bai neatly explains the dichotomy of “insiders pretending to be outsiders, and outsiders pretending to have mastered the inside game”:
There’s a tension, often irreconcilable, between our romantic vision of the outsider candidate, on one hand, and our basic threshold for credibility in those who govern, on the other. Sure, we want colorful, outspoken characters who aren’t part of a corrupt political system. We just want them to be tested, scandal-free and ready to govern at the same time. Is that so much to ask?
On the other hand, Gingrich is certainly colorful and outspoken but several of his former colleagues in the House question whether he is ready to govern; he is not above reproach when it comes to leveraging his political connections for personal gain; and he is neither ideologically pure nor resolute in his conservatism (although with Romney as his main rival, he doesn’t look as wobbly by comparison).
The Washington Examiner’s Byron York points out that Washington insiders – pols and pundits alike – are not buying the idea of Gingrich as a Washington outsider, or even that he has reinvented himself: “[I]nsiders simply don't believe there is a New Newt. Old Newt, the Gingrich who alienated many of his colleagues back in the 90s, will reassert himself soon enough, they believe.”
One of those insiders is Bloomberg View columnist Ramesh Ponnuru:
Gingrich’s fans say that he isn’t the same man he was then; he has “matured” in his 60s. Maybe so. But he’s still erratic: This year he flip-flopped three times on the top issue of the day, the House Republican plan to reform Medicare. He’s still undisciplined: He went on a vacation cruise at the start of his campaign. He still has the same old grandiosity: In recent weeks he has compared himself to Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and said confidently that the nomination was his.
Another insider who’s definitely not a fan is New York Post columnist John Podhoretz, who writes, “those of us who live and breathe politics and make our livings in and around it … remember Gingrich well. Too well.” But Podhoretz also understands that none of the inside baseball matters to voters who “know [Gingrich] mainly from Fox News [and] watched him playing the debates like a piano and enjoyed themselves enormously in the process.”
For his part, York concedes that, “[w]hile insiders remember Gingrich's low points from the 90s, outsiders remember his triumphs”:
They remember a Gingrich who had the vision to imagine a Republican takeover of the House when no one else could, and the skill to make it happen. And when outsiders think of the two greatest policy achievements of the Clinton years -- a balanced budget and welfare reform -- they know Gingrich can legitimately claim a lot of credit for both. So what if he was abrupt with colleagues? Or, for that matter, if he was the target of a Democratic-driven ethics attack? As far as the 1990s are concerned, outsiders remember Gingrich's high points.
New York Times columnist Frank Bruni believes familiarity with Gingrich breeds contempt amongst political insiders but not outsiders – who actually matter most because their votes will decide the nominee – because Gingrich “isn’t a relatively unknown quantity, some sudden crush whose real personality has yet to be revealed and whose demons lie in wait”:
Quite the opposite. His demons have been dancing across the national stage for nearly two decades, since he emerged on Capitol Hill as the tantrum-prone enfant terrible of the mid-1990s Republican revolution. …
The voters lining up behind him have already heard that he’s a hypocrite, so his ascent hasn’t been halted by all the fine reporting into his lucrative behind-the-scenes consulting for Freddie Mac, the mortgage company he later railed against. These voters know he’s imperious, so his scornful grimaces during debates and his self-aggrandizing soliloquies at all times aren’t the buzz kills they should be.
Between now and the caucuses, his opponents’ campaigns will be digging hard for new dirt, and may uncover something just shocking and humiliating enough to make a difference. But the soil they’re working over isn’t exactly virgin. …Voters may have seen the worst of Gingrich already.
Having made peace with Gingrich’s failings, voters respect his debating prowess and are impressed that he is an idea factory. Moreover, some Democrat strategists think Gingrich’s imperfections will pose challenges to President Barack Hussein Obama that Romney does not, The WaPo reports:
[V]oters yearning for authenticity may be more open to the voluble and rumpled former House speaker, who frequently discusses his past mistakes and his recent conversion to Catholicism, than to a former equity-fund executive with perfect salt-and-pepper hair.
“He does not carry Wall Street baggage,” said one Democratic strategist working on the Obama reelection effort, speaking on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss his thinking. “He’s really smart. He’s definitely authentic.” …
“If he’s able to leverage his authenticity and unpredictability to be a real person in the eyes of the voters, he could be a good general-election candidate,” said Erik Smith, a prominent Democratic consultant. “But you also have to have some discipline. Anytime that Newt Gingrich has been under a long period of sustained scrutiny, he hasn’t held up, and certainly a general-election campaign is the most thorough scrutiny any candidate gets.”
But as Ponnuru warns,
We already know the basic strategy of the Obama campaign. It will be to portray the Republican nominee as a dangerous right-wing extremist. Romney’s demeanor -- his steadiness, his reasonableness – would undercut that strategy. It seems likely to be much more successful against Gingrich. …
Gingrich’s energy and creativity are admirable, within limits. But recognizing his own limits is not a Gingrich specialty. Voters are likely to see, as he cannot, that he is temperamentally unsuited for the presidency.
However, Washington Times columnist Charles Hurt emphatically disagrees:
[T]these are not normal times. These are desperate times. We don't need competence. We need a revolution.
And this is where Newt shines.
Tempestuous and uneven? Certainly. But Newt has a political soul. Sometimes he wanders off, but he has an internal political compass that ultimately hews to conservatism. He has lived his life yearning to be a great figure etched into history.
Only time will tell whether Gingrich can sell himself to the electorate as an outsider; whether he can build a robust organization; whether his weaknesses are really strengths; whether he can successfully temper his passion with Romney’s discipline; and whether he can survive Obama’s oppo research. But one thing is clear: Gingrich has proved that, as the song goes, “everything old is new again.”