Newt Gingrich is the Republican Establishment's worst nightmare -- and not because it disagrees with his bold positions, as he would have people believe.
Since Gingrich upset Mitt Romney to win the South Carolina primary last Saturday, Republican leaders and conservative media outlets have formed something of an anti-Newt chorus. Criticisms have come in from 1996 presidential candidate Bob Dole, from pundit Ann Coulter, columnist Charles Krauthammer and Drudge Report founder Matt Drudge -- not to mention a slew of current and former members of Congress who worked under Gingrich when he was speaker of the House in the 1990s.
It is not surprising to see the Republican Establishment unite against a candidate it dislikes. What is different about the campaign against Gingrich, 68. is that it is based not on disagreement with his platform -- in fact, his platform is probably more appealing to conservative leaders than Romney's is -- but on the belief that Gingrich's bombast and his polarizing style would actually damage the Republican Party if he were its nominee.
If Gingrich is the nominee, it will have an adverse impact on Republican candidates running for county, state and federal offices, Dole wrote in an open letter released Thursday.
Jacob Heilbrunn, a blogger for The National Interest, praised Gingrich for some things -- for instance, his ability to speak to the populist anger many voters are feeling -- but agreed with Dole that in practice, a Gingrich nomination would be disastrous.
In foreign policy, he would be pure neocon. In domestic policy, he would push hard for further tax cuts, Heilbrunn wrote. But throughout, his unbridled nature would probably terrify the broad mass of voters. Unless Gingrich was able to reinvent himself again, he could lead the GOP to an electoral disaster not only in the presidency race but also in Congress.
1980 or 1964?
In debates and stump speeches, Gingrich has argued -- like Rick Santorum, and like Michele Bachmann before him -- that the we must nominate a moderate argument of Establishment Republicans is a fallacy. He is fond of comparing his primary battle with Romney to the primary battle between Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in 1980: Reagan the Conservative beat Bush the Moderate, and went on to win the election and become one of the most popular modern presidents.
But Charles Zelden, a historian at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and an expert on the elections process, said the Republican leadership and media are less concerned with the success story of 1980 than with the cautionary tale of 1964.
That was when conservative champion Barry Goldwater lost to President Lyndon B. Johnson in what was, at the time, the worst presidential landslide in American history: 486 electoral votes to 52. With his collapse, Goldwater brought many of his fellow Republicans down with him: 57 members of Congress had endorsed him and 20 lost re-election bids.
The Republican establishment is terrified of [having] a nominee so out of touch that it's a landslide not just for the president but for his whole party, Zelden said. They learned their lesson with Goldwater in 1964.
The situation in 2012 is very different. For example, Johnson entered the 1964 election with a 65 percent approval rating, which meant Goldwater was fighting an uphill battle. Obama's approval rating is nearly 20 points lower. While it has been trending upward, that alone makes a Johnson landslide unlikely.
But if the nominee is someone as divisive as Gingrich -- whom polls show would struggle to get independent support and who has been roundly criticized by many of the Republicans who worked under him in Congress -- it could well threaten the Republicans' majority in the House, not to mention their prospects of retaking the Senate.
Much has been made of Gingrich's personal baggage -- namely, his two extramarital affairs and his second wife's recent claim that Gingrich asked her for an open marriage. But this tends to bother his critics on the left more than on the right. The latter are more concerned with his professional baggage and how it reflects on his ability to campaign versus his ability to govern.
Gingrich's ability to campaign is not in question. It was with this ability that he engineered the 1994 Republican takeover, and it was with that ability that he has managed to pull his presidential campaign back from the brink not once, but twice. What is forgotten sometimes is what happened after 1994 -- and what his critics fear would happen after 2012 if Gingrich were elected.
It took less than four years for the new Republican majority to become disillusioned with Gingrich's leadership. His image began to crumble after the budget crises and government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996 -- for which he and the Republicans in Congress were blamed far more than President Bill Clinton and the Democrats in Congress -- and by 1998, he had little choice but to resign, especially after he was officially censured by the House for ethical violations.
Hardly anyone who served with Newt in Congress has endorsed him, and that fact speaks for itself, Dole wrote. He was a one-man band who rarely took advice. It was his way or the highway.
Not a day goes by that Gingrich doesn't tout his achievements in Congress, but many of his statements are exaggerated. He frequently says, for example, that he balanced the budget for four consecutive years, when only two of those years were actually under his speakership. And in the past week, critics have begun to question whether he was really as close to Ronald Reagan as he claims.
Mr. Gingrich voted with the president regularly, but equally often spewed insulting rhetoric at Reagan, his top aides and his policies to defeat Communism, Elliott Abrams, who served as assistant secretary of state under Reagan, wrote in The National Review. Gingrich was voluble and certain in predicting that Reagan's policies would fail, and in all of this he was dead wrong.
In fact, in 1986, Gingrich said on the House floor: Measured against the scale and momentum of the Soviet empire's challenge, the Reagan administration has failed, is failing, and without a dramatic change in strategy will continue to fail. The previous year, when Reagan met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Gingrich accused him of appeasement, calling the meeting the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.
If Gingrich wins the Florida primary on Tuesday, he will prove that his upset victory in South Carolina was more than a fluke -- but he will also provoke a tidal wave of opposition from the powers that be in the Republican Party.
Even many conservatives who are closer ideologically to Gingrich than to Romney cannot bring themselves to support Gingrich because of the damage they believe his political style and baggage could do -- and he will need to address that head-on if he wants to be president.