By Tom Switzer
We all know the Republican primary contest has been marked by a search for a conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. At various stages this year, that candidate has been Minnesota congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, Texas governor Rick Perry, businessman Herman Cain, and, most recently, the former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Now that Cain has pulled out of the race, who’s the candidate most likely to benefit? Well, thanks to a series of gaffes, Bachmann and Perry are damaged goods. Veteran Texas congressman Ron Paul’s appeal is limited to the libertarian and neo-isolationist fringes of the GOP. Other candidates — former Utah governor Jon Huntsman and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum — have never gained traction and won’t pick up steam anytime before the January 3 Iowa caucus.
Meanwhile, Gingrich’s poll numbers continue to rise. According to the Florida Times-Union’s poll, the former House Speaker is the choice of 41 per cent of likely Republican primary voters, with Romney a distant second, with only 17 per cent. Polls in Iowa and South Carolina tell a similar story, though Romney maintains a lead in New Hampshire, which borders his home state of Massachusetts.
Simply put, the 68-year-old Newt Gingrich is the last best hope for conservatives.
Which means the race for the right to represent the Republicans against President Obama next year is between Romney, the establishment candidate, and Gingrich, around whom the rank-and-file base of the party is rallying.
He has baggage, he’s arrogant, he’s polarising, he has character flaws – all these complaints have been thrown at Gingrich in recent weeks.
All true. For instance, his seemingly hard-line attitude in budget negotiations with President Clinton culminated in the infamous government shutdown in the winter of 1995 that culminated in Clinton’s remarkable re-election the following year. He resigned as speaker of the House of Representatives in the wake of Republican congressional losses in the 1998 midterm elections. He made more than $1.5 million in consulting fees from Freddie Mac, a government-backed company whose liberal lending practises helped create the conditions for the subprime mortgage crisis in 2007-08. And he’s been married three times.
Even if wins the GOP nomination, the Gingrich sceptics argue, his ideological and arrogant demeanour will turn off the crucial independents, especially in swing electorates in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida and Virginia, who help determine national elections.
But here are three reasons why I think Newt should not be underestimated:
First, he’s highly intelligent, an excellent debater, a prolific book writer, with a wealth of public service and private sector experience. An historian by trait — his PhD was on Belgian education policy in the Congo from 1945 to 1960 — Gingrich can’t be easily dismissed as a dunce nor is he capable of embarrassing the Republican party and conservative cause in the same way that Bachmann, Perry and Cain would have.
His old nemesis Bill Clinton even says nice things about Newt, telling the PBS News Hour a few days ago that “I always liked working with him” and “he’s good on foreign policy.”
Second, he’s not Romney. This is a crucial point in a Republican primary, where the political landscape has moved decidedly right in recent years. The conservative base just don’t trust or like the former Massachusetts governor. As Charles Hurt puts it in the Washington Times: “Getting Republicans to line up behind Mitt Romney, it turns out, is like trying to stuff a cat into a trash can.”
Why does the GOP base dislike Romney? Because he is seen as either a closet liberal or a dreadful flip flopper. This recent DNC advertisement tells the story:
Remember Nixon’s advice to Bob Dole: “Run like hell to the right in the primaries, then run like hell to the centre.” In the past week, Gingrich has received some glowing endorsements from the Right. Popular radio broadcaster Rush Limbaugh says Newt is the “only grown up” in the room, and the Union Leader, the most popular (conservative) newspaper in New Hampshire, where arguably the most important primary is held, endorsed him. Both views resonate with the party faithful, who are hungry for ideological red meat.
Third, Americans are in a foul mood. Unemployment remains stubbornly high, though last month’s jobs figures showed modest signs of improvement. Debt and deficits are skyrocketing. Opposition to the Afghanistan war is mounting. More than 70 per cent think the country is in either serious decline or heading in the wrong direction.
In this environment, it’s a fair bet that a broad cross section of the American people is prepared to overlook Gingrich’s well-known character flaws and vote out the incumbent.
Gingrich skeptics raise one other counter-argument: that he’s a washed up, discredited figure who’s been in the wilderness for more than a decade.
Well, the same thing was once said of Charles De Gaulle, Winston Churchill, Richard Nixon, Robert Menzies, and John Howard. When the critics gave them the kiss of death, it was mouth-to-mouth resuscitation: they revived and rebounded with tremendous force.
As it happens, Gingrich himself subscribes to historian Arnold J. Toynbee's theory of “departure and return”: the notion that certain great leaders must endure a long political exile before returning to power.
So that’s my case for not underestimating Gingrich. If the economy continues to deteriorate, or if it fails to improve during the next six to 12 months, he stands a very good chance of beating Barack Obama next November.
5 December 2011