Even as Gingrich is campaigning in Iowa on his first official trip as a 2012 presidential candidate, he has been forced to extinguish a self-started media fire fueled by his harsh critique of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal. He is also facing a new report in Politico that he carried as much as $500,000 in debt at Tiffany’s in 2005 and 2006.
Those two news stories — coupled with other past contradictory statements on health care and Libya — highlight a rapidly emerging issue for Gingrich in the presidential race: he appears to be a man out of time.
The last time Gingrich faced the political world as a candidate was in the late 1990s. That was long before Twitter, Facebook and You Tube not to mention the explosion of granular political sites and the rise in cable news channels reshaped the world in which politicians operate.
The ease with which Gingrich’s adversaries can disseminate negative information about him has increased exponentially as has the ability of anyone to not only post past quotes by Gingrich but also draw significant attention to them.
“With over a million Twitter followers, 130,000 people on his Facebook page and a constant stream of clips, updates, anecdotes, reports, and blogs about him, if the narrative turns negative (as it most certainly has) it will be very, very difficult for him to turn around,” predicted Rich Galen, a former Gingrich communications director.
Added former New York Rep. Tom Reynolds: “Newt when Speaker was known to be undisciplined in media relations.....Newt will step on and be knocked off his message more times by his actions than by others.”
For his part, Rick Tyler, a spokesman for Gingrich, argued that Gingrich’s online following and the speed with which information now moves will, in the long run, benefit his boss.
“People who follow politics in the modern information age can get to the truth quicker even if they have to wade through all the distortions,” said Tyler. “We will eventually win out.”
Maybe. But, the short term results are not promising for Gingrich.
His appearance on “Meet the Press” this past Sunday spawned a series of stories about his criticism of the Medicare elements of the Ryan budget — he described it as “right wing social engineering” — and led Gingrich to issue a flurry of responses on Monday aiming to re-focus the conversation on President Obama’s health care law. (Gingrich said he would have voted for the Ryan plan just a few weeks ago.)
It didn’t work. Conservatives reacted angrily to Gingrich’s comments about Ryan; “What he said was absolutely unfortunate,” South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said Tuesday. “Here you’ve got Representative Ryan trying to bring common sense to this world of insanity, and Newt absolutely cut him off at the knees.”
Then Gingrich was hit with the story of his Tiffany’s debt, which quickly became fodder for cable television.
The result? Two days where Gingrich was hoping for headlines about the headway he is making in Iowa and instead got a barrage of criticism from conservatives — criticism that was quickly shared and amplified around the web via, you guessed it, Facebook and Twitter.
Vin Weber, a former Minnesota member of Congress and friend of Gingrich, said that the “transformation of communication in a two-edged sword for Newt.”
Weber added: “[Gingrich] is capable of saying things that will generate more hits than just about anybody [and] that’s what every candidate wants for volunteer recruitment and fundraising....But it also means he never gets to slow down the discussion and is subject misunderstanding that gets repeated thousands of times.”
(Note: Weber is backing former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty for president.)
Gingrich is far from alone in struggling to make the adjustment between what running for office was like in the 1990s and what it’s like today.
The most notable example of that struggle is former Virginia Sen. George Allen whose “macaca” comment during his 2006 Senate race would have been forgotten — or never even seen — in a pre-You Tube era.
But, once posted online — the video now has more than 600,000 hits on You Tube -- the incident became a national news story and laid the foundation for Allen’s eventual loss at the hands of now Sen. Jim Webb.
Gingrich seems to be aware of the challenge the new media world poses to him.
“One of the painful lessons I’ve had to learn -- and I haven’t fully learned it honestly -- is that if you seek to be president of United States, you are never an analyst, you’re never a college teacher,” Gingrich told “Meet the Press” host David Gregory. “Because those folks can say what they want to say.”
He’s yet to fully adapt to that reality, however. And, his early slipups — vastly magnified on cable television, all-politics news sites as well as social media — have now created a negative narrative about his candidacy that Gingrich will have to work diligently to dispel in the coming weeks and months.