I wrote earlier that Newt Gingrich’s campaign is one of mutually assured destruction for the GOP. No one, I wrote, has to lift a finger to destroy Newt Gingrich. Just stand back, give him room, and he’ll do it himself. The thing is, you want to stand way, way back — otherwise Newt’s liable to try and take you with him. The problem for the GOP is that they can’t put enough daylight between themselves and Newt. And even if they manage to do that, they’re still stuck with Mitt.
The latest self-destruction of Newt Gingrich will be televised. If he’s able to carry on after losing the Nevada Primary to Mitt Romney, and make good on his promise to campaign all the way to the convention in Tampa, we can look forward to more performances like his post-Iowa temper tantrum, his post-Florida flame-out, and his bizarre concession-speech-cum-press-conference after Nevada.
Maybe Newt really is banking on a Super Tuesday southern revival strategy, but given his campaign’s still $600,000 in debt and he’s pretty close to losing his sugar daddy to Mitt Romney, even Newt know his candidacy is largely theoretical at this point. The thing is, for Newt it’s not about winning anymore. That makes him dangerous to the GOP in at least a couple ways.
Personifying the Politics of Personal Obstruction
First, Newt personifies the politics of obstruction the GOP has practiced since 2008, and ratcheted up after 2010. In fact, Gingrich practically invented it. Just by being Newt, he draws a parallel to the debacle of government shutdown that he promoted and presided over as speaker. Just by being Newt, he serves as a reminder that while Republicans have thus far avoided another shutdown, they have nearly brought our government to a standstill since 2010, rendering it ineffective in the midst of a crisis.
There is no greater pathology in today’s Congress than obstructionism, from Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH) refusal to raise the debt ceiling in July to Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) taking disaster relief funds for Hurricane Irene hostage. Both parties have long used Congress’s procedural rules to promote legislation they favor, but Gingrich created something new. “There is the assumption—pioneered by Newt Gingrich himself, as early as the 1970s—that the minority wins when Congress accomplishes less,” Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the number-two Democrat in the House, explained in a 2009 speech at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “Gingrich’s proposition, and maybe accurately, was that as long as…our party cooperate[s] with Democrats and get[s] 20 or 30 percent of what we want and they get to say they solved the problem and had a bipartisan bill, there’s no incentive for the American people to change leadership,” Hoyer told the Washington Post after the speech. “To some degree, he was proven right in 1994.”
In many ways, the obstructionist minority that Hoyer faced two years ago was following a playbook written by Gingrich over a decade earlier. Gingrich, in fact, took the debt ceiling hostage fifteen years before Boehner did, demanding huge, partisan cuts. In that case, the GOP backed down after President Clinton vetoed their spending bills and Moody’s warned of a credit downgrade. When Boehner refused to raise the debt ceiling, the threat of default lowered the US’s credit rating and was resolved by an complicated process involving a “supercommittee” and a two-step raising of the debt limit over a year. And it was Gingrich who, in one of his first acts as Speaker, patented the practice of refusing to approve disaster relief funds if they weren’t offset with spending cuts. Gingrich even held out after the Oklahoma City bombing later that year, prompting the Philadelphia Daily News to write, “Even Newt Gingrich must lose a little sleep at the idea of making political hay out of the mini-civil war that struck Oklahoma City.”
Of course, Gingrich’s greatest act of obstructionist brinkmanship was the 1995 and 1996 government shutdowns. Thanks to his refusal to concede on spending on social services, the government closed for five days in 1995, longer than the previous eight government shutdowns, and for a whopping twenty-one days a year later — the longest shutdown in history. Thanks to Gingrich’s obstinacy, health and welfare services for veterans were curtailed, Social Security checks were delayed, tens of thousands of visa applications went unprocessed and “numerous sectors of the economy” we negatively impacted, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Republicans still haven’t drowned the government in a bathtub. But they have slipped it some Ambien and started running the bath water, using a political playbook that Newt Gringrich wrote.
Republicans have done this in the middle of an economic crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Great Depression; precisely the moment when the government is needed to do what the private sector either cannot or will not. How many Americans have put this much together is hard to say, but the dismal approval ratings of the Republican House suggest that more and more Americans are placing some the blame for government inaction and ineffectiveness on the Republican-dominated House, which has been singularly focused on stopping even president Obama’s modest attempts remedying the unemployment deficit and the economic crisis.
No Solutions? No Problem.
Then there’s the other nightmare Newt is giving the GOP. First he exposes the roots of their obstructionist politics. Then he exposes their utter lack of solutions, at a time when America desperately needs solutions that will turn the economy around and launch a real economic recovery.
The problem for Newt and the rest of the Republicans is that they can’t blame the fact that more Americans see economic inequality as a problem at president Obama’s feet. The Occupy movement can be credited with pushing the issue to the forefront of our national politics, but happened largely because of economic conditions that add up the three decades of stagnant wages and increased costs of living for middle- and working-class Americans, just barely covered by cheap credit that allowed families to simulate increased living standards, until the economic crisis brought the whole house of cards tumbling down.
That’s what makes it “impossible” for Republicans to talk about the kind economic inequality that Bain and other vulture capital firms leave in their wake, as a part of just doing business.
Newt has, basically, created the perfect storm for Republicans going into the South Carolina primaries, with Mitt Romney — the Man from Bain, who still smells like a Wall Street boardroom, and probably now looks more than ever to South Carolina primary voters “like the guy who laid you off.” Newt has forced the Republicans into a conversation they can’t hold, and aren’t even remotely prepared for.
The funny part is that Newt ever thought they could avoid it, and that Republicans still think they can avoid it.
I said earlier that the reason Republicans freaked out when Newt launched his attack on Mitt Romney’s days at Bain Capital was because he pretty much pointed a double barrel spotlight on two things Republicans dread discussing: economic inequality and the GOP’s lack any plan or political will to do anything about it. That’s classic Newt. On the one hand, he wants everyone to stop talking about economic inequality. Then just when the GOP’s traveling side-show of a primary race rolls into some of the most economically devastated parts of the country, inadvertently rubs everyone’s nose in it, while also making it clear that they don’t plan to do anything about it, and don’t particularly want to.
Newt exposes that not only do Republicans have no solutions for our economic and unemployment crises, but the don’t see that anything needs solving. No solutions? No problem!
The Party’s Over
Finally, there’s one problem Newt and Mitt have in common. Newt may have boasted of carrying the “tea party people” after Florida, but Romney is making inroads to the tea party. That is, Romney’s trying to court what’s left of the tea party.The lack of unity in the Nevada tea party may reflect what one movement leader had to say about the tea party: The tea party is dead.
It was the great wildcard going into the 2012 election cycle. Republican Party insiders openly worried the Tea Party might knock off the establishment presidential candidate, just as it knocked out establishment picks in the chaotic 2010 congressional races. Party heavyweights wondered whom the upstart movement would get behind and whether Mitt Romney could even get through the early states, given the once-raging Tea Party elements in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
But after months of wondering how the Tea Party would change the primary game, leaders inside the movement admit they never came in off the sidelines. For the Tea Party movement, the 2012 presidential primaries have been a bust.
“The Tea Party movement is dead. It’s gone,” says Chris Littleton, the cofounder of the Ohio Liberty Council, a statewide coalition of Tea Party groups in Ohio. “I think largely the Tea Party is irrelevant in the primaries. They aren’t passionate about any of the candidates, and if they are passionate, they’re for Ron Paul.”
That leaves Gingrich to wrestle with a Republican establishment that wants him even less than it wants Romney, and to ponder a question one “concerned Republican” in junior high posed in an open letter to Gingrich on the Huffington Post.
First, let’s take a look at your chances of becoming the nominee: National polls have you polling pretty well, but a Romney victory tonight in Nevada seals him as the clear national frontrunner. As for the next few primaries, Romney leads polls (albeit very old polls) in all except for your home state of Georgia. (Congratulations, but that’s just not gonna cut it.) Romney is not only better organized, better funded and better known, but also better liked. Delegate counts have you far behind Romney. All signs point to a clear-cut Romney nomination. So thanks for making it interesting, but there’s not much more for you to do.
Second, take a long hard look at exactly what you are doing to the Republican party. We get it, you are a true conservative, and you can motivate the base. But it has become very clear that the Republican establishment doesn’t like you. Sad but true, they make the real decisions. While you stay in the race, they have to try to beat you, and not Obama. With you still in the race, Obama can sit back and watch you tear into Mitt Romney for being wealthy and successful (which only hurts him among critical swing voters!). While you exist as a challenger, you take money that Romney should be spending on ads against the president. Surely, as a man who plays politics better than most politicians, you can see this.
The only thing that confuses me is where you think your path to victory is.
Newt is a lot of things, but dumb (usually) isn’t one of them. He’s at least as smart as a junior high student. Whatever rhetoric he spouts for the media, Newt probably doesn’t see a path to victory. Newt knows there isn’t one. Newt knows he’s not going to be the nominee, but he’s happy to be a spoiler.
Which brings us to the Super Tuesday contests of March 6, in both such industrial Midwestern states as Ohio and such never-really-deprovincialized Southern states as Georgia—among numerous others. Gingrich is clearly counting on winning several of those Southern states, while Romney’s strength lies outside the South. But as March 6 approaches, more debates will loom, and Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul will continue to pull Romney to the right. What really will keep pulling Romney rightward, of course, is the mere continuation of contested GOP primaries. That’s the significance of Newt’s continuing to hang in: It delays and makes more difficult Romney’s pivot back to the center. Since the GOP contest began in earnest in Iowa last December, dragging Romney ever further to the right, his approval rating among independents has declined almost 20 percent. The longer the contest continues, the later, and more awkward, Romney’s re-moderatification will be. The wrath of Newt, that is, benefits no one more than Barack Obama.
Whether this persuades Sheldon Adelson to cease his care and feeding of Gingrich is anybody’s guess. By all accounts, Adelson is as cranky and impervious to establishment advice as Newt. (And as right-wing idiosyncratic: The two greatest threats to Western civilization, he told The Wall Street Journal a couple of years back, were radical Islam and card-check for unions.) Together, these two crazy coots—Gingrich and Adelson—could prolong a contest that Romney wants to end yesterday. For now, it’s not his call.
For Gingrich, this is no longer about winning. Indeed, it probably never was. It may have begun as a cynical marketing campaign by Gingrich, more about making money and selling books than moving to Pennsylvania Avenue. Now it’s a grudge match, and Gingrich is content to lose so long as he can take Romney — and the GOP’s hopes for 2012 — down with him.