By Glenn Thrush
The prevailing attitude among many Democrats is that Newt Gingrich 2012 is the best thing to come down the pike since – well, Newt Gingrich 1996.
“We’re looking at 1964 or 1972” if the former speaker is the GOP’s pick, predicted one top Democratic strategist, recalling two incumbent landslides.
Gingrich’s liabilities are ample and amply documented. There’s the infamous lack of personal or professional discipline, the absence of campaign infrastructure… Oh, and he just happened to collect $1.6 million from reviled mortgage giant Freddie Mac in nebulously defined consulting fees.
Most of those around President Barack Obama would still prefer to take on Gingrich rather than the better funded and organized Mitt Romney. But if Romney is a conventional enemy, Gingrich poses an asymmetrical threat: He’s simply a more dangerous, talented and unpredictable political actor than Romney.
“Romney is playing not to lose and Newt thinks he has nothing to lose,” says Phil Singer, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton in 2008. “He’s facile enough to sound convincing on almost anything and has the gift of framing complex issues in their simplest terms… He’s more dangerous as a surrogate than a candidate, but he’s still dangerous.”
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in a “Morning Joe” appearance Thursday, said Gingrich was flawed, but shouldn’t be underestimated: “I think Newt has his set of vulnerabilities, but [he’s] more consistent… with real ideas, like Ronald Reagan,” he said. “I remember the [Jimmy] Carter White House just dying for Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan was the dumb actor, said incendiary things.”
Given the volatility of the Republican race, it’s not clear if Gingrich has already peaked after the relentless attacks by Romney and his other Republican opponents this week, not to mention the frantic warnings from the GOP establishment that he will rescue defeat from the jaws of victory for the GOP if he is nominated in 2012. But here are four reasons the Obama team should not take Gingrich for granted:
Newt’s Brain. Obama’s senior campaign adviser David Axelrod coined one of the most memorable lines of the cycle earlier this week when he described to reporters the renewed scrutiny Gingrich faces as front-runner.
“I told my colleagues yesterday a bit of homespun wisdom that I got from an alderman in Chicago some years ago: A candidate, and one of his colleagues wanted to run for higher office, and he was really dubious,” Axelrod said. “He said, ‘Just remember the higher a monkey climbs on a pole the more you could see his butt.’ So you know, the speaker is very high on the pole right now and we’ll see how people like the view.'”
Nonetheless, Obama would likely find himself occupied with the other end of Newt.
One of Obama’s great advantages over his potential GOP opponents has been a “brain gap,” the sense that, for all his failings, Obama has greater intellectual firepower than most Republicans in the race.
Both Romney and Gingrich are mostly exempt from that description, but of Obama’s two most likely opponents, Gingrich is the closest thing to an idea factory in this race, with a record of actually supporting bipartisan agreements, from welfare reform with Bill Clinton in the 1990s to a medical modernization campaign with Hillary Rodham Clinton a decade later.
Democratic strategists not associated with the Obama campaign see this as a possible problem for Obama. Chicago will likely attack Gingrich’s more radical ideas – three government shutdowns in the 1990s, proposed cuts to Medicare, education, etc. But they can’t portray him as a “party of no” dolt who doesn’t know Medicare from Medicaid or that we don’t have an actual embassy in Iran. In fact, on any given issue, he might know more than the president himself.
The flip side? The “zany” factor, i.e. Gingrich’s obsession with futuristic or downright odd, like the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse attack.
He fires up the base. For now. It may be the anybody-but-Mitt glow, but the GOP base, which turned on Gingrich a decade ago, has now made him their champion.
Axelrod sees a “Martini Party” vs. “Tea Party” split in the GOP, but Gingrich seems comfortable sipping both beverages.
At the moment, he enjoys a 15-to-20 point lead over Romney among self-described conservatives. If the general election is as tight as expected that could make a big difference, especially in the south – especially North Carolina, Virginia and his some-time home state of Georgia, which Obama has had hopes of winning.
Things could all change with greater scrutiny, but one Democratic strategist says Gingrich’s ability to embrace the GOP’s moneyed class while still retaining his damn-D.C. rebel rhetoric is what makes him most dangerous.
His more moderate moves haven’t much impressed independents – and his language on abortion hasn’t always pleased anti-abortion activists (In 2005, he said he backed banning the procedure but said he didn’t know the best way to do so). But that still puts him in better standing than Romney, who used to be an enthusiastic backer of abortion rights.
“Newt is kind of his own ideology,” says veteran GOP consultant Rob Collins, former chief of staff to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). “He’s been almost indefinable over a 30-year-career. He’s been able to define himself issue-by-issue because he’s so persuasive… He’s re-invented himself three times. He should terrorize the Obama campaign.”
Newt’s mouth. Any Republican can say nasty stuff about Obama, but no one – including Romney – seems to enjoy it quite so much or deliver the attacks with such uninhibited, almost child-like glee.
Obama is a polished debater, thanks to a couple of dozen nasty rounds with Hillary Clinton and John McCain. But he’s never really faced the kind of wild haymakers Gingrich throws. And while the former speaker will have plenty of chances to implode, he could also force Obama into a major mistake.
Despite his reputation as an unfiltered hothead, his performances in debates – take last night’s scrum in Iowa – have been cool, effective and deft on defense. When Michele Bachmann savaged him on Freddie Mac, he shot back, “I have never once changed my positions because of any kind of payment.” When Rick Santorum challenged him on his conservative credentials, he hopped in the GOP way-back machine: “I think on the conservative thing, it’s sort of laughable to suggest that somebody who campaigned with Ronald Reagan and with Jack Kemp and has had a 30-year record of conservatism is somehow not a conservative.”
Obama has never faced an opponent with such a gift for phrase-making and memorable, bumper-sticker vitriol beloved by talk radio.
A Gingrich sampler: Obama is “the most radical president in American history.”
“Obama’s alliance with big labor and the left as a “secular-socialist machine.”
The “elitist” president’s Windy City re-election organization as an extension of a “Chicago” machine run from the West Wing out of touch with regular America.
“No one’s going to hit Obama harder than Newt, and isn’t that what we want our guy to do?” asks one senior Republican strategist active in Senate campaigns – and no fan of the former speaker’s. “I think the Democrats should have a healthy dose of fear for Gingrich. You can’t underestimate this guy, he’s gone from disgraced speaker – a joke really – to a legitimate front runner.”
The flip-side: He can come off as arrogant and hyperbolic. And Axelrod seems giddy about the comic possibilities of nailing him: “You all left him for dead at the checkout counter at Tiffany’s,” he told reporters.
Medicare/Immigration. Democrats will take aim at any GOP candidate for targeting Medicare in the ’90s, but he’s arguably harder to attack on that issue than Romney.
Despite his opposition to Obama’s health care legislation – and his call for Medicare reforms – he’s been a public advocate for health care reform and enthusiastically backed the Medicare D drug prescription plan, anathema to fiscal conservatives but wildly popular with seniors.
But his most important credential in a general election may be his famous rebuke of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program – which he slammed as “right-wing social engineering.”
Romney, who embraced the Ryan plan as a step in the right direction, has used Gingrich’s words as an attack line, hoping to undercut the former speaker’s support among tea party conservatives. But if Gingrich prevails, defending Medicare could be a big plus in places like Florida, Ohio and western Pennsylvania, places he’ll need to win.
And he’s even cleaned himself up with Ryan, a hero to fiscal conservatives, calling a more moderate proposal sponsored by the House budget committee chairman and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a “breakthrough.”
Then there’s immigration.
Gingrich, like every other Republican candidate, fares poorly with Hispanic voters – and he backs Arizona’s right to implement its controversial immigration law. But he’ll be harder to demonize than Romney: He essentially embraces the GOP’s pre-2008 immigration position – no amnesty, but no mass deportations either – and his call for a “humane” solution to the problem, including the creation of a “Red Card” that makes undocumented immigrants legal while not offering them a path to citizenship.