Posted by: Joshua Green on December 1, 2011
Newt Gingrich is only the latest improbable Republican frontrunner, and unlike those who preceded him — Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain — he has a decent chance of sticking around. That’s partly due to necessity. Just a month from the Iowa caucuses, conservatives don’t have time to anoint a new savior. It’s also because, despite his copious shortcomings, he seems immune to what felled the others. An able debater, he won’t flop like Perry and Cain. He’s not a full-on nut like Trump. And his legislative record eclipses Bachmann’s, which barely exists.
But his late emergence as the “true conservative” poised to challenge Mitt Romney is rich, and its broader significance underappreciated. For two years, the driving force in national politics has been the Tea Party, whose founding myth was that ordinary citizens were rising up in defiant resistance to the hidebound, self-dealing ways of Washington. Greedy politicians had bloated the government and lined their own pockets at taxpayers’ expense, while letting the country go to rot. Prime examples were held to be the expansion of government health care and federal support for the housing market, especially Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored entities that many conservatives blame for the financial crisis. The mere fact of being a veteran Washington legislator cost respected conservatives like Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah their jobs. Should all that anger, energy and contempt for Washington end up concentrating itself in the person of Newt Gingrich, then the movement will have failed when the stakes were highest.
Temperamentally, Gingrich is a good fit. Both his zestful attacks on the media and unbridled self-regard both reflect Tea Party tendencies. But since being deposed as House Speaker in 1999, he has earned millions of dollars by conducting himself in almost point-by-point opposition to what the Tea Party claims to stand for. In fact, he’s a superb exemplification of the way Washington really works.
Soon after leaving Congress, he established The Gingrich Group, a lobbying and strategy firm that grossed $55 million over the next decade. Like most Washington eminences who trade on their years of public service, Gingrich huffily rejects the label of “lobbyist,” claiming that he simply provided insight and strategic advice. But that’s exactly what lobbyists do.
They also create politically acceptable rationales for others to support their clients’ interests. Gingrich was paid at least $1.6 million by Freddie Mac to help fend off new congressional regulations, presumably by convincing fellow Republicans to set aside their philosophical objections.
Gingrich also established a health-care consulting firm, the Center for Health Transformation, that took money from drug companies like Pfizer and Astra-Zeneca, and also from the main drug lobby, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, during the successful 2003 push to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. According to the Washington Examiner, Gingrich personally leaned on Republicans in Congress to support the bill.
And beyond lobbying, he has advanced many positions that are anathema to the Tea Party. He once supported an individual mandate to buy health insurance — Mitt Romney’s inexpiable sin. He teamed up with Nancy Pelosi to urge action against global warming. Earlier this year, he criticized the House Republicans’ budget as “right-wing social engineering,” only to change tack when criticized. Overall, Gingrich has felt obliged to post to his campaign website rebuttals to 18 separate ideological challenges and alleged apostasies.
None of this has stopped him from trying to claim the conservative mantle. “We think there has to be a solid conserative alternative to Mitt Romney,” he told a South Carolina radio station this week. “I wouldn’t lie to the American people. I wouldn’t switch my positions for political reasons.”
But of course he has already done so, many times. And yet this hasn’t appeared to hurt him with conservative activists, who are, in fact, rallying to his side. Odd as it seems, a Republican primary that began as a contest to accommodate these activists — bending mainstream figures like Tim Pawlenty into painful contortions — now seems likely to end as a desperate bid to find someone — anyone! — who isn’t Romney. If the search ends with Gingrich, it will be a measure of just how much the Tea Party has deceived itself.
Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.