In the end, Newt Gingrich was who we thought he was.
The big lesson from Gingrich’s campaign? Tigers don’t change their stripes.
When Gingrich first made clear he would pursue the presidency in 2012, there was considerable chatter — pushed by his inner circle of advisers — that this time things would be different for Newt.
Gone would be the free-wheeling Gingrich as interested in promoting his own personal brand as his political interests. In its place would be a disciplined messenger who would be the only conservative able to compete with frontrunning former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in the race for campaign cash and on the debate stage.
Within 29(!) days of Gingrich’s official entrance into the race, all of that “things are going to be different, you’ll see” talk went out the window when the entirety of the former Speaker’s senior campaign team quit en masse — complaining of a candidate who didn’t want to do the basic blocking and tackling required of someone running for president.
Gingrich, true to his nature, painted the departures as the natural result of consultants trying to run a traditional campaign with a decidedly untraditional candidate. “There is a fundamental strategic difference between the traditional consulting community and the kind of campaign I want to run,” Gingrich told ABC News at the time. “Now we’ll find out over the next year who’s right.”
(One former Gingrich adviser, upon hearing word that his old boss was suspending his campaign, wrote in an email to the Fix: “Consultants 1, Gingrich 0. His inability to demonstrate character, discipline [and] gravitas coupled with ‘shortcuts’ doomed this over a year ago.)
To Gingrich’s credit, however, he made good on his plan to prove everyone wrong (at least for a time). Capitalizing on a several-month period during the fall of 2011 in which debates dominated the daily and weekly conversation in the Republican presidential race, Gingrich clawed his way back into contention.
He was all acerbic wit and dismissiveness in the debates, willingly and skillfully throwing red meat to a conservative base unhappy with the idea of Romney as their nominee and on the lookout for anyone who looked like a credible challenger to the former Massachusetts governor.
Two South Carolina debates within three days of each other in January served as the acme of Gingrich’s time in the race; fittingly each was defined by a clash between the former House Speaker and a debate moderator. (Make sure to check out our list of the most memorable moments of the Gingrich campaign here.)
On the strength of those debate performances, Gingrich surged to a victory in South Carolina on Jan. 21. Little did we know at the time that he would win only one more primary between then and the end of his campaign — and that in his home state of Georgia.
What happened to Gingrich was no surprise to anyone who had followed the boom/bust cycles of his political career. (Remember this is the man who, four years after he spearheaded a Republican takeover of the House for the first time in 40 years, was pushed from office by his colleagues.)
Rather than take his South Carolina victory as a second chance to run the sort of serious campaign — organizationally, financially etc. — that he had whiffed on back in the summer of 2011, Gingrich saw the Palmetto State win as an affirmation that his non-traditional campaign was working.
One incident tells you everything you need to know about how Gingrich learned the wrong lessons from winning South Carolina. On Jan. 25, just four days after his South Carolina victory and just six days before the critical Florida primary, Gingrich pledged to establish a permanent moon colony by the end of his second term. When pressed on that outlandish claim,Gingrich — stop us if you’ve heard this one before — doubled down, insisting that grandiosity in the pursuit of big ideas was no vice (or something like that.)
The final two months of Gingrich’s candidacy looked more like a freewheeling cross-country trip with his wife, Callista, by his side than an actual campaign for president. Gingrich’s penchant for visiting zoos became legendary on the campaign trail. He was spotted taking in D.C.’s cherry blossoms on March 19, one day before he finished fourth in the Illinois primary. And so on and so forth.
By the time Gingrich officially called it quits, he had long sacrificed the relevance that he once had in the race. Media organizations had pulled their reporters embedded with him and, to the extent he got any press coverage, it was because of wacky incidents like being bit by a penguin. (Not kidding. That happened.)
Looking back, it’s hard not to see Gingrich’s presidential campaign as a missed opportunity or, rather, a series of missed opportunities. Gingrich’s natural abilities as a politician are vast — they are simply not as vast as he believes them to be. His inability to understand that gap ensured that he never grasped the chances that he was able to — somewhat remarkably — create for himself.
That’s Gingrich’s legacy in the 2012 presidential race. It also happens to be his legacy in politics more broadly over the past three decades.