In a must-read piece, Quin Hillyer recaps some of the lowlights of the Newt Gingrich years in Congress:
Like [Sen. John]McCain, Gingrich seems to erupt most viscerally when he is criticizing conservatives. There’s a special edge to his occasional anti-conservative rumblings, as if his inner Rockefeller keeps yearning to be free. (Gingrich was Rocky’s southern regional director against Nixon and Reagan in 1968.) When he endorsed Dede Scozzafava over conservative Doug Hoffman in a special election for Congress in New York, Gingrich wasn’t content merely to boost the liberal; instead, he repeatedly and emphatically lectured conservatives, indeed insulted conservatives for being stupid and childish and unrealistically “purist.” When he trashed Paul Ryan’s budget plan this past spring, he not only played into the left’s hands by calling conservatism’s centerpiece proposal “radical change” and “right-wing social engineering,” but he again lashed out in harsh terms at conservatives who objected to his statements -- and then he tried to deny having said what he actually said and claimed to be speaking in a context that didn’t exist.
Conservatives who served in Congress with him were familiar with this habit: If he disagreed with moderates, he cajoled them and tried to mollify them; but when he disagreed with conservatives, he went ballistic. Now-Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma tells the story in his book Breach of Trust (2003) about how Gingrich wanted conservatives to renege on a unified party pledge to cut internal committee spending by a third. (If they couldn’t discipline their own internal spending, how could they ask for discipline from anybody else?) When a bloc of conservatives nevertheless torpedoed Gingrich’s plans (in other words, held to their pledge despite his pressure), the Speaker went ape. He called a “mandatory” meeting for all GOP congressmen, even threatening to send the sergeant-at-arms to track members down. Once there, he blasted the bloc, demanding that “you conservatives” (note the phraseology) shape up. “Gingrich’s tactic backfired,” wrote Coburn. “He thought he could embarrass and intimidate us, but not one person was intimidated.” And: “Gingrich’s vitriolic response to us bringing down the rule for the bill confirmed to us that he was willing to trade our principles for a short term political advantage over the Democrats.” . . .
He botched the 1995 “government shutdown” battle in similar ways, combining the petty and personal (complaining that Clinton made him sit in the back of Air Force One) with the petty in terms of policy (insisting that the otherwise clean Appropriations fight, which the GOP was winning, suddenly include a technical fix to a tiny Medicare problem, which allowed Clinton to begin his successful Mediscare tactics).
Those of us who remember the Gingrich years all too well can scarcely believe that Gingrich is now holding himself up as the sage of the GOP. For many voters and many members of the press corps, however, this is almost dimly recalled ancient history.
Unlike a conversion on a policy matter or two (e.g. Gingrich now renounces his global warming ad with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Gingrich’s failings were largely ones of temperament, judgment and character. Fred Barnes recounted Gingrich’s temper tantrum during the budget shutdown standoff with President Clinton:
By early November, the White House was preparing for a shut-down, developing themes (the GOP budget is “bad for America”) and political tactics, and trying to create a crisis atmosphere in which Gingrich would cave. When Republicans proposed to raise Medicare premiums slightly, Clinton pounced. And when Gingrich said he’d been snubbed on the Air Force One trip from Israel after Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral, the White House reacted in mock disbelief at Gingrich’s gaffe, then handed out photos showing Clinton had spent time with Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole on the plane. . . .
Nothing delighted [Clinton and his advisors] more than Gingrich’s discomfort after making the childish complaint he’d been treated rudely on Air Force One. Clinton didn’t set Gingrich up for embarrassment, but it worked as if he had. On the flight from Israel, Gingrich expected to have budget discussions with the president. Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary, had said talks would occur on the flight home. Clinton was ready to talk. But he’d been put off by a long chat with Gingrich and Dole three days before the trip. “They’re just dug in,” the president told an aide after that session. On the plane, he sent Leon Panetta, the White House chief of staff, to check whether Gingrich and Dole had softened their position. Panetta reported back that they hadn’t. So Clinton slept, Gingrich fumed, and the government shut down.
Is there any evidence that Gingrich has matured since then? Hardly, as Hillyer notes; his attack on Rep. Paul Ryan was vintage Gingrich. His take-offense-at-debate-questions act is another vivid manifestation of his raging egomania. (You dare to question the great Gingrich with questions about his record?!)
In the Iowa Republican, insiders say it is a mistake to underestimate him, even with all his warts. Craig Robinson of the Iowa Republican e-mails, “The good thing for Newt is that most of his dirty laundry has already been aired. It’s the stuff that people don’t know about a candidate that can hurt s candidate or sink a campaign. For example, Newt’s Tiffany’s debt surprised us, as did his opposition to the Ryan budget. That is why those two things hurt his campaign when it was in its infancy.” However, he cautions, “I think it’s new developments, like taking $300k to advise Freddie Mac, that will cause him problems.”
An Iowa GOP operative not aligned with any campaign says that Gingrich suffers from personal baggage and more than a few ideological heresies, “but people are pretty forgiving of him because they like his ideas.” This operative thinks Gingrich could go as high as 25 percent in Iowa.
It is far from certain whether Gingrich will hold up under scrutiny any better than Herman Cain, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), and Texas Gov. Rick Perry did. Unlike Perry and Cain, he won’t be perceived as lacking a basic understanding of the issues. But soon he will need to fend off questions about his years in Congress, his support for the individual mandate and the ethical lapses. He will need to address a slew of not-very conservative positions he has taken over the years on everything from TARP to cap-and-trade to illegal immigration. Frankly, he’s been to the left of most of the GOP field on a number of issues.
How he reacts to the inquiries will be as important as his substantive answers. When a debate moderator or a competitor focuses on one of his weaknesses, it will be telling whether that explosive anger shows through. And when conservatives like Tom Coburn recall the nightmarish years in Congress, it will be interesting to see whether Gingrich acknowledges his shortcomings or once again resorts to attacking conservatives.
In a long campaign, candidates usually wind up revealing a good deal about themselves, intentionally or not. Cain and Perry have done themselves far more harm than their opponents have done to them. It may be just a matter of time before Gingrich joins the list of political suicides in the 2012 GOP presidential primary.