The unsinkable Dick Nixon once commented that "Defeat doesn’t finish a man, quit does. A man is not finished when he’s defeated. He’s finished when he quits." We can easily apply this standard to Newt Gingrich, whose presidential bid is no longer a punch line for late night comics.
Whether you like him or not, Gingrich doesn’t know the meaning of the word quit. Everyone said he was done last summer when Newt and wife number three took a long cruise rather than raising money. They said he was done when his staff resigned, accusing Newt of lacking the necessary discipline. His campaign was mocked, even when he was surging late in the fall. After his dismal fourth place finish in Iowa and his meager showing in New Hampshire they again claimed that the former Speaker’s candidacy was finished.
Then the unthinkable happened. Gingrich—a man who many thought was forever left in his electoral grave after resigning in from Congress in disgrace—again rose like Nixon from the political dead. A week before last Saturday’s South Carolina primary Mitt Romney held a ten point lead. One day before the election experts in that state predicted a five point Gingrich upset. The actual numbers told a much more incredible tale as Gingrich thumped Romney by about 13 points, essentially gaining 23 points in less than seven days.
In the Superman comics Bizarro World was the place where things are upside down; black is white, light is dark, and everything reflects an inverted image of reality. In the 2012 campaign Bizarro World, uber-establishment Beltway insider Newt Gingrich has reinvented himself as the anti-establishment, populist hero of working class, blue collar Americans. And in the process he has sent presumptive frontrunner Mitt Romney into panic mode.
Why is Gingrich so good at appealing to base voters while Romney is not? Gingrich exudes passion and determination. Romney plays it safe by saying only what he must. Gingrich radiates anger and frustration with the Obama agenda. Romney goes to great lengths not to speak in hyperbole or red-meat laced rhetoric. On the stump and in the debates Gingrich is electric while Romney is dull and dispassionate. Newt has showed them that he is ready to debate President Obama immediately without giving any ground. Romney has been less convincing.
The election night speeches given by Gingrich and Romney following the stunning South Carolina vote last Saturday present a fascinating case study. Romney delivered a subdued, monotonous message that perfectly followed the campaign’s formula: play it cool, be calm, take some weak shots at Obama and Gingrich, and avoid raising anyone’s hackles. It was a smart speech to give if you’re the guy who’s up by 20 points and safely on the path to the nomination, but not if you’re the guy who is fighting for his life.
The Gingrich speech was the extreme opposite. Before a raucous crowd he waxed blissfully about his days as Speaker, again reminding all that in 1994 he led the party out of the wilderness and into power. He took credit for the private sector jobs created in the Reagan and Clinton years, clearly articulated his complaints about the Obama administration, built a case for why he should be the nominee, and stared down the press who loathe him with every fiber of their being.
The speech was a Gingrich classic and reminiscent of his tactics from decades past that drove his enemies to madness. Gingrich took shots at the liberal media, chided the New York and Washington power elite, jabbed at Romney as being chronically out-of-touch, and slammed Obama as the "food stamp President" presiding over America’s decline. He bashed Hollywood and San Francisco with ease and cast himself as the happy warrior battling for his cause.
In his speech, Gingrich did what a master pol does best: he worked to build his base. After indirectly stating that his opponents were unelectable, Gingrich tried to co-opt their supporters by extending an olive branch, knowing that he needs a chunk of each of their votes to win the nomination. He praised Ron Paul for his fight for sound money, thanked Romney for his service in rescuing the Olympic Games, and extolled Rick Santorum’s irrational hawkishness towards Iran.
He slammed the moral relativists, excoriated the secularists, and re-issued the stern warning that President Gingrich would purge from the judiciary those who dare disagree with him. The intended recipients of Gingrich’s words were the most highly biased voters in the country who just want someone, anyone to defeat Obama. And they were listening rather than chuckling.
Ultimately, we can draw three conclusions from South Carolina where Newt staged one of the most incredible comebacks in modern campaign history:
First, we know that Romney has a glass jaw susceptible to fracture when challenged directly. Gingrich is unlikely to deliver the knockout punch to Romney, but he has helped show Obama how to do just that. The more the Democrats see of the exposed, fragile Romney, the easier it will be for them to tear him to pieces this fall.
Second, for Romney it is time to get tough or get out. He has to remove the gloves and personally hammer Gingrich instead of hiding behind his "uncoordinated" Super PAC ads aired by his millionaire pals. If he can’t hack it, he should step aside and let the Republicans find someone else before it is too late.
Finally, we’ve learned that Gingrich cares more about promoting himself than he does anything else. His candidacy is one big ego trip and lots of unsuspecting middle class and blue collar voters have been fooled into going along for the ride. I guess they know little of the man’s true history.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, Republicans anxious for a win this fall are left waiting with anxiety for Newt Gingrich, Supreme Ruler of Bizarro World to learn the meaning of the word "quit."
Nathan Shrader is a Republican Committeeman in Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected]