This week we reached Stage 2 in the surge of the latest not-Romney contender. Stage 1 is: “Our conservative savior!” Stage 2 is when conservatives begin to realize: “Oh wait, this guy’s worse than [fill in the blank], the prior not-Romney candidate.” Stage 3 is when the candidates’ shills and misinformed mainstream reporters announce that he’s not harmed by Stage 2. Stage 4 is when Stage 2 sinks in with the electorate at large. Stage 5 is the decline in polls. And Stage 6 is the beginning of the search for the new Stage 1.
This week, Stage 2 began with some much-needed cobweb clearing from the minds of some conservatives. Rep. Ron Paul’s ad got the ball rolling. But solid conservatives from Jim Geraghty to Mona Charen to Marvin Olasky to the editorial board of the Washington Examiner began to sound the alarm. Realizing that the White House is certainly obtainable as President Obama’s support continues to erode even within his own party and that Newt Gingrich might not implode all on his own, conservatives stepped forward. None of these are particularly well-disposed to Mitt Romney, but neither are they willing to avert their eyes from the very serious flaw of his latest rival.
Others like Ramesh Ponnuru have explicitly come out for Romney, while warning about the perils of Gingrich. Ponnuru writes:
His recent proposals on immigration are classic Gingrich: innovative-sounding, accompanied by high-tech gadgetry, and wholly absurd. Local community boards will decide which illegal immigrants to expel! We will be “humane,” while denying temporary workers the vote and stripping their children of citizenship! . . . . Memories have faded, and his current fans say he is a changed man. But he still has the rhetorical style — by turns incendiary, grandiose, and abrasive — that turned off middle-of-the-road Americans then. (November 16: “Because I am much like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher . . . ”) . . . . Recall the events that led to his campaign’s meltdown this summer, in which he first praised Paul Ryan’s plan for entitlements, then condemned it as “right-wing social engineering,” and finally apologized to Ryan for the comment. . . .
The warnings and criticisms fell into four distinct categories. The first is that Gingrich isn’t a staunch conservative but an opportunist who will gladly stab the right in the back for personal gain. The second is that his character is so flawed that he’s not fit to hold the presidency. (Only one issue concerns his serial infidelity. But it is a powerful issue for many soical conservatives, as Ponnuru notes: “He would be the first president with multiple ex-wives, and the first president with any ex-wives who speak negatively about him on the record. He would bring with him the first first lady who could be labeled a ‘home wrecker.’ President Obama would not have to say a word about any of this for the press to make it an issue.”) The third is that he’s not the new Newt at all and continues to dissemble on everything from his lobbying work to his undermining of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). The fourth is that he made millions lobbying (yes, lobbying) for big government on behalf of clients opposed to conservative principles. And the fifth is that he lacked leadership and organizational skills as speaker of the House and would be an even worse chief executive than Obama.
Now some of these are overlapping. The Examiner covered several in a single sentence: “Gingrich has been seen as an ultimate Washington insider, as exemplified in that $1.6 million he was paid to represent Fannie and Freddie, and his work with Nancy Pelosi on behalf of cap-and-trade.”
What is interesting is that with the exception of the Paul ad and some barbed comments from Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), all of this came to pass in a week and without much, if any, effort by the other Gingrich competitors. Romney has barely begun to attack Gingrich, deploying New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to highlight the fifth category of criticisms. (“Speaker Gingrich has never run anything. He’s been a legislator. I have to tell you — I don’t think being a legislator is the best calling card. Look at the guy we have in the White House now. He never ran anything and was a legislator.”) Romney, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and others are telling us they are going to engage Gingrich, but unlike the surges of Herman Cain, Perry and Bachmann, there are many voices on the right who aren’t doing the “circle the wagons” and “it’s all a mainstream media plot” routine that they deployed to defend other not-Romney rivals. That is because Gingrich is better known, and frankly the stakes are getting higher as we approach the first actual contests.
But more than the pundits, more than his opponents, it is Gingrich who remains his most lethal threat. When he insists that he was not a lobbyist but a “citizen” when collecting tens of millions to influence lawmakers, he merely confirms the worst aspects of his persona (self-indulgent, obtuse, dishonest) and reminds Tea Partyers that he represents what they oppose.
Gingrich’s record is still sketchily known to many voters. But that record is emerging, and the arguments against his candidacy are being methodically forged by those who think the country’s problems are too great and the GOP’s shot at the White House is too important to entrust the nomination to someone whose defining characteristics (e.g. megalomania, recklessness, disorganization) are overwhelmingly negative. After a week of initial intensity the question on the minds many conservatives is: Is Gingrich really the GOP’s idea of an anti-Romney?