Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich brought his 2012 presidential campaign to an end today, closing another stage in a life lived in the national political spotlight for more than three decades.
“Today I am suspending the campaign, but suspending my campaign does not mean suspending citizenship,” Gingrich said at the event in Arlington, Virginia this afternoon, saying he’d had an “amazing year.”
But will Gingrich’s departure from the race amount to the final hoorah for a man who, inarguably, has been one of the most influential politicians of the last 30 years? Or is it simply another pause for a politician who has turned re-invention into a cottage industry?
Opinions on that topics, like on Gingrich generally, are deeply divided.
Some see Gingrich’s too-long presidential campaign as indicative of his tin-earedness about how much desire there is from within the GOP — or the American public more broadly — for the ideas he’s selling.
“Newt is part of the past not the future,” said Sam Dawson, a one-time close adviser of the former Speaker. “Plus he has paraded his failings across the country and world in technicolor and likely forfeited any real role in the party’s future.”
Others insist that writing Gingrich’s political obituary ignores the series of falls — and subsequent rises — that have defined his career. “Nobody is better at remaining politically relevant than Newt Gingrich,” said Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole (R). “Anyone who believes he is finished is foolish.”
The facts are these.
Gingrich began the 2012 presidential race as a top-tier candidate given his proven debating/speaking abilities, the belief that he could raise enough money to remain within financial shouting distance of frontrunning former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and a clear appeal with social conservatives in the first-to-vote state of Iowa. (Way back when, we penned a piece outlining why Gingrich was being underrated in the Republican presidential field.)
Even then there was an undercurrent — actually, it was something close to an overcurrent (if that exists) — that Gingrich’s well-documented egomania, unwillingness to remain on message, and belief that the rules of politics didn’t apply to him would ultimately lay him low.
Little did we know how quickly that would happen. Twenty-nine short days after he announced his candidacy for president, Gingrich’s entire (or close to it) political team quit — citing his unwillingness to listen to their advice.
Oddly, the departures seemed to suit Gingrich. He was back in his element — a Don Quixote-like figure charging at political windmills. And, what Gingrich still had was, well, that he was Gingrich — a man of considerable rhetorical gifts who possesses an unmatched understanding of what makes the Republican base tick.
He rose (again) and this time managed to pull of a win in the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary. But, soon after that, bad Newt — those who know him well always split his persona between “good Newt” and “bad Newt” — reemerged. Gingrich lost to Romney in Florida in late January and the delicate threads keeping him alive as a top-tier contender began to unravel. (Best example? Gingrich’s pledge to build a permanent moon colony by the end of his second term as president.)
By early March, it was clear that Gingrich had been surpassed as the conservatives’ choice by former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. Clear to everyone, that is, but Gingrich who continued — both in March and April — to act as though he remained in the pole position for the GOP nod. (Make sure to read this piece on the various and sundry ways Gingrich contradicted himself about his place in the race in those final months.)
It was in that period — when political reality and the Gingrich view of political reality began to be two entirely different things — when his campaign started to damage the good he had done for his brand in the race to date.
Gingrich became a political punch line — he appeared more interested in spending time with animals at zoos then with actual voters — and badly overstayed his welcome in the race.
For those people who believe that Gingrich, who will turn 69 in June, is done when it comes to any meaningful role in Republican politics, it’s those final few months of the campaign they point to.
Again, Dawson on Gingrich: “He is one of greatest modern day political examples of squandered potential. The hubris trumped the talent and intellect.”
There are others, however, who, while acknowledging Gingrich did himself no favors in the final months of the race, believe that American politics is full of second (and third and fourth) acts.
“Only in Washington, DC do we think Newt is toast,” said Rich Galen, a former aide to the Speaker who has been an outspoken critic of how Gingrich conducted his presidential campaign. “Outside the edges of the Orange or Red Lines people who liked Newt before still do. People who hated Newt still do. Whichever, Newt will continue to show up on, and be an active part of, the political landscape.”
Bob Walker, a former Pennsylvania Congressman and one of Gingrich’s most loyal supporters, insisted that his former colleague retains a significant following among the Republican activist community.
“When he appeared in Lancaster [Pennsylvania] just two weeks ago, the crowd was largely a Romney crowd because Romney had been advertised as the main speaker,” recounted Walker. “But Newt got, by far, the most enthusiastic reception for his anti-Obama remarks and a standing ovation at the end of his speech.”
A look back over Gingrich’s career does suggest that he is at his best when pushing ideas and causes rather than advocating for himself. Gingrich’s best moments were in the decade-plus long effort to overturn Democrats’ House majority in the 1980s and early 1990s; his worst were the four years he spent as Speaker in which he became the story (and not in a good way).
Said Eric Ueland, a longtime Congressional aide and now a lobbyist at the Duberstein Group: “Freed of campaigning, [Gingrich] could resume his role as a fountain of ideas and advocacy for the movement, and be welcomed to fire up Republicans as a respected senior conservative figure.”
Speculation about a more formal role for Gingrich in a possible Romney Administration — a Cabinet position or an envoy of sorts — misses the mark. Gingrich is not, in any real sense of the word, a team player. He is at his best when he is a lone wolf — playing by his own rules at the periphery of the party establishment.
If Gingrich does have a next act in politics, it’s as a one-man Republican ideas band. It’s a role he was born to play.