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.
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.
Harvard’s Institute of Politics holds a quadrennial conference at which the top advisers to the various presidential candidates come together to replay the just-concluded election. At the conference in December 1996, Dole’s advisers talked openly about their feelings of near helplessness as they watched Gingrich steer the Republicans into a confrontation with Clinton, which led to a government shutdown, which damaged the party, which ultimately cost Dole dearly.
At the time of that battle, Dole was a political hostage. The ascendant anti-government Gingrich wing of the party, which was in control after the 1994 elections, viewed Dole with considerable suspicion — not so dissimilar to how some conservatives today regard Romney. During intraparty battles in the 1980s, Gingrich had referred to Dole as the “tax collector for the welfare state.” Though Dole was Senate majority leader and the front-runner for the presidential nomination, Gingrich dominated the party at the time.
Because of that history, Dole could not afford to create any daylight between himself and the speaker on either issues or tactics. When the budget negotiations with Clinton deteriorated, Dole was one of the victims and was later tied to Gingrich in Democratic ads that savaged the Republicans.
“In my run for the presidency in 1996 the Democrats greeted me with a number of negative TV ads and in every one of them Newt was in the ad,” Dole wrote Thursday. “He was very unpopular and I am not only certain that this did not help me, but that it also cost House seats that year.”
With fears that the party’s House majority was in jeopardy that fall, Dole again watched helplessly as the Republican National Committee aired television ads on the final weekend of the campaign designed to protect that majority at the expense of its presidential candidate.
Dole’s relationship with Gingrich, like those of many in the party, is not one-dimensional. He and Gingrich were able to work together on many things. When Gingrich was reprimanded by the House and fined $300,000, Dole stepped forward to offer to lend the money to Gingrich. The former speaker ended up paying off the money with other funds, but the gesture was significant, given their complex relationship.
What is fascinating about the Republican race is that, in a matter of days and weeks, it has turned from the question of whether a stop-Romney movement would materialize to the reality that a stop-Gingrich movement now has taken shape.
The lines are tangled in this battle. Some former House colleagues have gone after Gingrich, others have stood by him. The fight for Ronald Reagan’s legacy has divided old Reaganites. Some belittle Gingrich’s claim that he was a key lieutenant in the Reagan revolution or his rightful heir among the GOP candidates. Others see him as the political leader who helped translate Reagan’s success into a congressional majority.
Those who underestimate Gingrich today were many of the same people who underestimated him as he crashed his way into the upper ranks of the party more than two decades ago. He may resent what the establishment is doing to him now, but he also may welcome the attacks as ratification that he remains a threat to established order.
Gingrich may lose this battle, and he could damage himself in the process. But he will not go quietly, and his old friends and enemies in the party know it.