JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The revenge of the Republican establishment is a sight to behold. From one corner to another, those who have tangled with Newt Gingrich, who feel aggrieved toward Newt Gingrich or who fear Newt Gingrich have amassed to stop him. They know how much harder it will be to do so if the former House speaker wins Florida on Tuesday.
The quintessential example of establishment angst came Thursday from Bob Dole, the former Senate majority leader and 1996 Republican presidential nominee. Hours before Thursday’s GOP debate, he released a letter — circulated by Mitt Romney’s campaign — attacking Gingrich and pleading with Republican voters not to make him the party’s nominee. There is much rich history behind that letter.
Newt Gingrich hit Mitt Romney on his personal investments, while Mitt Romney attacked Gingrich's work for Fannie Mae. (Jan. 26)
View the former House speaker’s 2010 federal tax return.
Dole is just one voice in a chorus of critics who have spoken out. Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina just a week ago sent a shudder through the ranks of elected officials and others who make up the establishment and the conservative elite. Fear of Newt has displaced lack of love for Romney as the dominant emotion among these Republicans.
In recent days, the group has included former House majority leader Tom Delay (R-Tex.) and the caustic Ann Coulter. A trio of House members shadow Gingrich’s events. Others who are prominent in the conservative movement have joined ex-colleagues of Gingrich to sound the alarms.
The establishment message that Gingrich is a threat to the party is not new, but the intensity with which it is being delivered is. That he might become the nominee has touched off near panic in the ranks ahead of Tuesday’s vote. Party establishments, to the degree they exist, have only limited power to direct the course of events. But to the extent that they have power, they are exercising it with a vengeance.
The change in Dole’s posture illustrates the story.
On Dec. 18, Dole announced his support for Romney in the nomination race. His open letter to Iowa voters never mentioned Gingrich, who was then under assault from the super PAC backing Romney. Instead, Dole was wholly positive in stressing Romney’s attributes. He noted that he had many friends in the race but argued that the former Massachusetts governor had the best chance to beat President Obama and fix the economy.
What Dole wrote Thursday was strikingly different. He mentioned Romney in passing, in the last of five paragraphs. The rest was an attack on Gingrich and a warning of a Republican debacle in November if the former speaker were to win the nomination.
“If Gingrich is the nominee it will have an adverse impact on Republican candidates running for county, state, and federal offices,” Dole wrote. “Hardly anyone who served with Newt in Congress has endorsed him and that fact speaks for itself. He was a one-man-band who rarely took advice. It was his way or the highway.”
Dole lost the presidency in 1996 to Bill Clinton for many reasons, some of them of his own making. But among the reasons was the damage that Gingrich, as speaker, did to Dole and the party’s image in the formative stages of that election.