Newt Gingrich is experiencing his first real scrutiny of the 2012 presidential primary. Jonathan Martin and John Harris observe, “Even allies say there is simply no way Gingrich can defend all the controversies of his past — there are simply too many of them. His task is to transcend them by seeking to set his past against a context of personal growth.”
That would work better, or course, if in his years after his speakership he hadn’t gorged at the trough of special-interest groups. That is why the Freddie Mac controversy is so difficult for him. As the Politico duo note: “Faced with more Freddie Mac questions on a campaign trip to Iowa Wednesday, Gingrich wouldn’t say whether the report was accurate that he got paid at least $1.6 million and, despite his previous claims, did not warn the organization about the looming housing bubble.” If he doesn’t have his story down yet on the first issue to confront him, it’ll be tough sledding.
And we’ve only begun to see the extent of Gingrich’s self-enrichment. The New York Times reports that during the 2009 health-care debate about “death panels,” Gingrich “praised Gundersen Lutheran Health System of LaCrosse, Wis., for its successful efforts to persuade most patients to have ‘advance directives,’ saying that if Medicare had followed Gundersen’s lead on end-of-life care and other practices, it would ‘save more than $33 billion a year.’” It turns out that “Gundersen was one of the paying clients of Mr. Gingrich’s Center for Health Transformation, a health consulting firm whose other clients have included WellPoint, the American Hospital Association, and various other major health care concerns.” But that’s just the tip of the iceberg:
His campaign could not answer questions that have arisen — first in The Washington Examiner — about whether he represented the pharmaceutical trade group, Phrma, given that he had been a vocal advocate of President Bush’s 2003 prescription drug benefit for the elderly. Now often criticized by conservatives as a costly expansion of Medicare — and thus, potentially problematic for Mr. Gingrich — many Republicans supported the measure at the time as a way to increase prescription coverage by relying on the private market.
Phrma on Thursday released a statement confirming that it had hired Mr. Gingrich “on a positioning project,” though it did not provide exact dates or specifics.
It’s a big problem for Gingrich if he was not only on the other side from hardcore conservatives, but in the pocket of Big Pharm during a battle that many conservatives consider a watershed moment in the federal government’s creeping intervention in health care. In short, Gingrich will have a hard time playing down his role as a promoter of the very sort of crony capitalism that Tea Partyers abhor.
There is another problem with the personal growth angle: It involves a certain humility and admission of error. Gingrich hasn’t done that except in the vaguest manner possible. As someone who fancies himself as an historic figure and deep thinker, he’s not prone to enumerating his errors. How has he grown, and how do we know he has? And more to the point, is the Oval Office a self-actualization seminar or a place for a mature and entirely stable leader?
Moreover, there’s no sign that he’s “grown” beyond a rather unconservative view of government, one for example, that favors ethanol subsidies, the individual mandate and a list of statist policies. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) is actually far closer to the Tea Party ideal of minimal government than Gingrich, who has a thousand ideas about how government should improve our lives.
And if we’re talking about “growing” away from the egomanical personality that vexed him as speaker, we’ve seen no evidence of that. He continues to cast himself as a transformational thinker, too brilliant to be constrained by mere moderators and demands for specific policies.
There are also some practical problems that he faces. He doesn't have much money or staffing. For the entire campaign Gingrich has raised less than $3 million. His ability to get up ads and put boots on the ground in early states is quite limited. In Iowa, that’s especially problematic because grass-roots organizers need to find and make sure the candidate’s supporters turn out on caucus night.
Moreover, unlike Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was largely unknown to many voters and the media, there is a wealth of information available on Gingrich. There are oodles of fellow influence peddlers, former colleagues, ex-wives and ex-staffers who have story after story to feed to the media, much of it unflattering. The mainstream and conservative media are wasting no time in beginning to excavate his record. That leaves Gingrich’s rivals free to stay on message, attacking President Obama and presenting their own policy plans.
And then there is the widespread doubt that Gingrich could hold it together for an entire primary and general election and actually beat Obama. The search all along for anti-Romney voters has been to find an electable, conservative alternative to Romney. But who thinks the Obama campaign won’t have a field day ripping Gingrich and his record to shreds?
Time will tell if Gingrich can keep himself in check. But as a supporter of another candidate put it, “It’s a lot easy to be the professor at the back of the pack than leading the back.” He’s going to have to do all those things that mere mortal candidates must do — answer questions rather than argue with the questioner, explain his policy proposals, convince voters he’s not an anathema to independent voters and show a level of calm and magnanimity that we expect of presidential wanna-bes. Does Gingrich have it in him? We’ll find out in the next month or so.