Gingrich’s anger management
By Michael A. Cohen
The views expressed are his own.
WINDHAM, N.H.—Newt Gingrich is flying high these days – on top of national Republican polls and currently leading in three of the first four Republican primary and caucus states. He hasn’t been this relevant in American politics since Bill Clinton sat in the White House and Titanic was the biggest movie in America. But while the new Newt is clearly enjoying himself, seeing him on the campaign trail brings back familiar glimpses of the old Newt, defined far more by his acid tongue than he was by his policy acumen.
On Monday night, Gingrich took his frontrunner status on the road to New Hampshire, where he spoke at a packed town hall in Windham to crowds that were as ecstatic for him as they would have been for Leo and Kate. More than a thousand Republican partisans were there to greet him. What they got was the sort of grandiose ideas and red-meat political attacks against liberals – and in particular President Obama – that have been the hallmark of Gingrich’s political career, the key to his recent political rise, and perhaps his best hope for winning the Republican nomination. In a year in which Republican voters are angry with Obama and angry with Washington, all the GOP wannabes are cultivating conservative ire – but no one quite does it as effectively and as gleefully as Newt.
For Gingrich then, New Hampshire is a win-win state. The state is generally seen as Mitt Romney’s fail-safe; the place where he must—and should be able to—win in order to keep his election hopes alive. Moreover, the state GOP tends to be less socially conservative than their Iowa brethren; more attuned, it seems, to a Romney rather than Newt candidacy. Nonetheless, Gingrich’s numbers in New Hampshire are beginning to tick up, becoming Romney’s top rival and within shouting distance of first place. If he loses, the world won’t come to an end – and if he wins it could be the killer blow to Romney’s campaign. All the more reason, it seems, for Gingrich to play up his frontrunner credentials and critique Romney.
Ironically, however, Gingrich opened the proceedings by calling on Romney to end all negative campaigning. He even pledged that he would tell all his supporters to refrain from such behavior unless attacked – and such a letter was drafted by the Gingrich campaign and sent out yesterday. The tactic of decrying negative campaigning is Frontrunner 101 – if your opponent can’t attack you, he probably can’t beat you either. Of course, as these things go, this call for a cease and desist came less than ten hours after the former Speaker said of Romney that “he’s earned money bankrupting companies and laying off employees over the years at Bain.” Clearly for Gingrich some habits die hard.
Indeed, Gingrich was in a strange environment to be arguing for the politics of purity. Monday’s event was co-sponsored by the Southern New Hampshire 9.12 Project – a Tea Party off-shoot that was birthed, in part, by conservative talk show host Glenn Beck. The questioning from the audience ignored larger issues like this and instead was reflective of the group’s occasionally paranoid worldview.
The spokesman for the group introducing Gingrich complained that “America is no longer a representative democracy” and “our liberties are under attack.” Things continued in that vein. There were questions about an alleged United Nations plot to take over the United States called Agenda 21. One woman asked if the former Speaker would support a plan to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency’s “unaccountable bureaucrats” and replace it with an Environmental Solutions Agency. Others complained that “Islam is trying to spread its influence…and take over the country.”
Gingrich made no real effort to tamp the emotions in the room. If anything, Gingrich took every opportunity to rile up the crowd with harsh attacks on President Obama and liberals in general. “Secular and judicial bigots,” he claimed, “are trying to prevent Americans from publicly discussing god.” He said that not only had he studied history but, “unlike the President I have studied American history.” He boldly asserted that he would not “bow down before a Saudi King” the loudest applause line of the night and a none-too-subtle reference to the conservative meme that Obama himself engaged in such behavior (he didn’t). Gingrich’s tone stood in rather stark contrast to his plea for civility – a plea that seemed restricted to the Republican primary field.
Of course, this is huge part of Gingrich’s appeal – and an essential element of what all Republican presidential candidates must do to win their party’s nod this year. Over the past two and a half years, the center of gravity in the GOP, which was already pretty far to the right, has moved even further in that direction. So much so that the GOP frontrunner, one month before the nation’s first primary, must engage with and give oxygen to conspiratorial right-wing fantasies.
The advantage for Gingrich is that he does this as well as perhaps any candidate in the field, and he brings the added bonus of constant, lacerating attacks against liberals, elites, bureaucrats, social engineers etc. While Romney has shown himself to be occasionally effective at riling up the conservative base, his is simply a different dynamic. Romney doesn’t have his heart in it the way Gingrich does; the frustration and resentment that are at the core of Republican politics this year doesn’t roll off his tongue as effortlessly as from Gingrich’s. If faced with the prospect of voting for a candidate who mouths all the right words or voting for one who articulates a hatred and mistrust of the liberals, intellectual elites, social engineers and faceless bureaucrats in their bones, why choose the former?
With barely a ground game in the state right now (Christopher Galdieri, a political science professor at St. Anselm college called it “anemic” and said it paled next to Romney’s far more extensive infrastructure), aggressiveness is the key to Newt’s success. While the tea party contingent may only be a small part of the GOP electorate in New Hampshire locking up the angrier elements of the Republican vote will be key to a Newt victory – and it’s a role that he is likely to be far more effective at than the technocratic Mitt Romney. So it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing a truly kinder, gentler version of Newt Gingrich any time soon.
PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate and former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich speaks during a campaign stop at Insight Technology in Londonderry, New Hampshire December 12, 2011. REUTERS/Brian Snyder