It seems like a century ago when Newt Gingrich led the charge to overthrow decades of Democratic rule in the House of Representatives using his Contract for America as the blueprint for an agenda that included balancing the budget and term limits. At the time, the Democrats were stale and liberalism an obsolete political philosophy that had hardened into political correctness. What Gingrich did was nothing less than to revolutionize American politics, turning Tim O’Neil’s maxim that all politics was local on its head. Thanks to Gingrich, all politics was now national and he ran the Congressional campaign as if it were a British parliamentary election. The Republicans won and America has never been the same.
But no sooner had he been sworn in as Speaker, he opted to accept a book deal from Rupert Murdock for millions of dollars, violating the rules of the House. Term limits vanished from the agenda. Dick Morris, Bill Clinton’s close advisor, told Clinton to adopt the Republican agenda by balancing the budget and changing the welfare system to end permanent dependence. It worked and Clinton won reelection.
Then Gingrich blew it by closing down the government. The Republicans lost numerous seats in Congress and he resigned. His legacy was his censure by Congress for ethics violations and his party’s defeat. Most wrote him off as finished in politics and it appeared as if he wrote himself off as well. His extramarital conduct became the stuff of legend and he vanished from the political scene, starting a consulting business and authoring countless books, including works of fiction. He married his last mistress and became a Catholic.
When he announced his candidacy for president, most dismissed him off as a has-been with absolutely no chance of winning. As if to confirm this, he took his wife on a cruise in the Greek Islands and most of his staff quit. He announced his intention of staying in the race but this was counted as bravado. He had no money and no organization, yet he had sufficient numbers in the polls to get into the debates, during which he actually sounded sane and he began to attract attention. The radical right, in its quest to stop Mitt Romney, first went with Michele Bachmann, whose over-the-top comments made her seem loony. Then they supported Rick Perry, who turned out to be an idiot. There was the flirtation with Herman Cain, whose campaign imploded in the wake of allegations by women of sexual misconduct. Because Ron Paul opposed aid to Israel, he was anathema to the Evangelicals so his poll numbers have remained in the low teens. Finally there was Newt, who espoused conservative values with sufficient clarity during the debates that he began to pick up support. No one was more surprised by this than Newt himself, who was running in order to keep charging thousands for speaking engagements, receive lucrative book contracts and increase the clientele of his consulting business. It came out that he has made millions as a consultant to the health-care industry and to Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac, but none of this halted his sudden rise.
This was a “new” Newt, observers said, more mature and stable, whose new-found religious faith made his past personal transgressions fade into insignificance; he had gone to confession and been forgiven.
So far, his poll numbers have not been affected by the negative ads attacking him in Iowa since most people are concerned about the economy and think Romney is a Wall Street insider, a representative of the old GOP Establishment, which the Tea Party despises. In their search for a candidate of their own, they settled on Newt, with his unadulterated support for capitalism.
But is this really a new Newt? Remember Richard Nixon’s comeback, when commentators described him as the “new Nixon”?
He was more self-assured and less strident and looked comfortable in his skin. He bested both Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination and won a close election against Hubert Humphrey. In the wake of the disastrous McGovern campaign, he won his long-sought landslide and seemed to have more power than any president in the past, including Lyndon Johnson, who had self-destructed.
But this was no new Nixon at all. It was the same old Nixon, devious, dishonest and vicious. Under pressure, he cracked and became the first president in American history to resign. Gingrich is made of the same stuff and the Republicans will nominate him at their peril. But what he’s got is an ability to throw the base raw meat the way no other candidate can. His remarks on the Palestinians show he knows how to appeal to key constituencies of the GOP in a powerful way. It would be a mistake to count him out because, like Nixon, he has a subterranean connection to the worst impulses of many Americans and is unafraid to exploit that connection. Democrats, gleeful at the idea that Newt could be the Republican nominee, should remember that they could get what they wish for and come to regret it.