Still, like Rick Santorum or, on paper at least, Rick Perry, Gingrich managed for a moment or two to unnerve Mitt Romney enough to bring down on his head the full weight of Romneyland — Romney’s campaign, its super PAC, a bevy of surrogates and much of the Washington Republican establishment.
The first time was in Iowa late last year after Gingrich, with help from Herman Cain’s sudden demise, reemerged from a months-long period in the doldrums following his campaign’s implosion and the defection of his top advisers. This was when Gingrich suddenly led the polls in Iowa and elsewhere and declared with typical modesty that he almost certainly would be the nominee. It was a sign of hubris, long a Gingrich weakness, that even the candidate would come to regret.
Romney’s team so effectively crushed Gingrich in Iowa that few people believed he could come back again. But he did. Three weeks later he won a decisive victory in South Carolina, only to be thrashed again by the forces of Romney, this time in Florida.
Surprisingly, he was done in by the medium that had kept his candidacy alive through the fallow months — the candidate debates. In the Florida debates, he was uncharacteristically tentative and defensive, seemingly tongue-tied by the ferocity of Romney’s attacks. The Florida defeat sealed Gingrich’s fate. Within a week, Santorum had eclipsed him as the principal challenger to Romney.
But that didn’t end his campaign. Gingrich won another primary, his home state of Georgia. He thought he could leverage that into victory in Alabama or Mississippi. When that didn’t happen, he thought — when no one else did — that he might be able to win Louisiana. When that didn’t happen, he still balked at getting out. Like Santorum, he couldn’t believe Republicans would nominate a moderate from Massachusetts.
The book on Gingrich at the start of the campaign was that he would be his own worst enemy, that he would implode or explode or in some other way blow himself up with his own mistakes, misstatements or excesses. In some ways he was, but this time it was different.
Oh, he got angry and let it show. He called Romney a liar after being showered by millions in attack ads. He smacked Romney in a Sunday morning debate in New Hampshire for spouting what he called “pious baloney.” He called out debate moderators when it suited his purposes politically.
He seethed over treatment at the hands of the Republican establishment. He told The Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty, who has had as good a bead on what makes Gingrich tick as any reporter covering the campaign, that, after his staff left him in the summer of 2011, he endured “the two worst months in my career in 53 years.”
But in this campaign, there was no true equivalent to Gingrich as House speaker complaining about being forced to sit in steerage on Air Force One, ignored by Bill Clinton on a 25-hour flight that brought the famous “Crybaby” front page from the New York Daily News. At least nothing that marked the beginning of a descent that proved fatal.
In some ways it was the opposite. It’s true that he ran an idiosyncratic campaign. He had pet theories about how to win that never panned out. Eventually he had to yield to the reality that a serious presidential campaign needed to have serious infrastructure. By then he had failed to qualify for the Virginia ballot and had given Santorum a clean shot against Romney in the Missouri beauty contest primary.
But Gingrich, the rebellious backbencher who never shrank from the most extreme characterizations of his Democratic opponents, the divisive politician who railed against “the corrupt, liberal welfare state,” was surprisingly constrained and contained as he battled for the nomination.
Romney proved to be the more ruthless candidate, not Gingrich. Yes, the former governor had the money to amplify his attacks. Gingrich may have had Sheldon Adelson’s millions going into a super PAC that went after Romney, but compared with the resources available to Romney, he was always at a disadvantage.
With only a few exceptions, he was tamer than Romney in debates that mattered. His most memorable debates were those in South Carolina, when he attacked Fox News’s Juan Williams and CNN's John King. There is no exchange with Romney in a debate that had as much resonance or political impact as either of those. At a crucial moment in Florida, he flinched, hesitant to repeat an attack against Romney that he had made in one of his ads.
One of Gingrich’s contributions to the campaign was his effort to keep all the candidates focused on big issues and on President Obama. He was most effective at this when he was least relevant. He believed the nation’s problems merited solutions on a big scale. He defended grandiosity. His solutions were often complex and sometimes easy to parody. His call for moon colonies is Exhibit A. The voters weren’t buying, but he retained a capacity to speak broadly and many times with clarity.
He faded out of the campaign, rather than stormed out. Even when it was clear he had no hope of winning, he maintained a cheerful tone. Long after he had any real hopes of being a factor in the race, he said, “I’m having a ball.”
In the end, Gingrich the historian managed to make history, though not the kind he might have dreamed about. He became the first Republican in the modern era to win the South Carolina primary and lose the nomination. It has been that kind of year for the former House speaker.
What now? He has managed to keep himself in the forefront of his party for decades. He does not lack for energy or desire to think through what his party needs to win in November and beyond and what conservatism needs to prosper.
Will there be another chapter in the Gingrich political story? There is no way to answer that at this moment other than to say: There always has been.