I’m afraid I can’t get too excited about the Newt Gingrich boomlet.
The field general of the Revolution of 1994 is suddenly out in front of the Republican presidential primary polls, but I can’t help thinking that he will soon go the way of Rick Perry and Herman Cain.
It’s not Gingrich’s disparaging of President Obama’s “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview. Or the six-figure bills he and his third wife ran up at Tiffany’s. Or the cruise of the Greek islands that led much of his staff to quit in frustration.
Gaffes and missteps may dislodge Perry and Cain from their top-tier status by making them appear unqualified to be president, but there’s no question the former speaker of the House is qualified.
His problem, rather, is that he is entirely too moderate in this field — and, therefore, in no position to establish himself as the conservative anti-Mitt Romney. The ideas that made him a conservative revolutionary in 1994 make him squishy in 2012.
The public got a taste of Gingrich’s relative moderation in May when he disparaged Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which House Republicans embraced en masse, as “right-wing social engineering” and “too big a jump.” He quickly retreated from this inadvertent honesty, uttered in the same “Meet the Press” interview when he defended his previous support for an “individual mandate” requiring health insurance — the part of Obamacare that conservatives find most objectionable.
This was not an isolated case. In 2005, he sat down with then-Sen. Hillary Clinton to make common cause over health care. He said he and Clinton “have the same instinct” on health care and praised the notion of a health care “transfer of finances” from rich to poor. “I risk sounding not quite as right wing as I should,” Gingrich said at the time.
In 2007, Gingrich appeared with John Kerry and conceded that humans have contributed to global warming, saying, “We should address it very actively.” He complained about “the absence of American leadership” on climate change, pitched incentives to reduce carbon emissions and said, “I am not automatically saying that coercion and bureaucracy is not an answer.” Gingrich called for a “green conservatism.”
In 2009, Gingrich met in the Oval Office with President Obama and the Rev. Al Sharpton and emerged to proclaim that “education should be the first civil right of the 21st century.” Soon after that, he appeared on Capitol Hill with Bill Clinton and Trent Lott for an unveiling of the former Senate majority leader’s portrait, lamenting that “we wasted so much energy with controversy when we could get so many more things done.”
At one point during his dalliance with the Democratic establishment, Gingrich joked that “one can gradually rebuild almost any reputation if you pander enough to the authorities that write columns and show up on TV.”
Now Gingrich is trying to undo all that pandering, and his strategy of bickering with the debate moderators has won him adoration among conservatives. “I am just so mad about … nasty, petty questions,” radio host Bill Bennett told Gingrich Tuesday morning, saying of one moderator, “You took him down.”
“I don’t mind taking them on,” Gingrich said.
That tactic has helped to save Gingrich from obscurity in the presidential field. While Perry and Cain have flamed out, Gingrich remains the last man standing against Romney, virtually tied with him nationally in a new CNN poll.
Gingrich is now aiming to take his anti-media campaign further. The news media “did everything they could to kill my campaign,” he said, and “I fully expect them to dig up everything they can, throw the kitchen sink at me and see if they can stop me.” This, he told WBOB radio in Jacksonville, Fla., on Tuesday afternoon, is because his candidacy is “probably the greatest threat” to Obama’s re-election.
Actually, there’s less media antagonism toward Gingrich than to other candidates. And few in the Washington establishment would regard Gingrich as a threat to the status quo in the capital. The real danger to his candidacy is that tea party voters will discover just how moderate he has been.
This slipped out in his interview with WBOB, when he criticized the budget-cutting “super committee” in terms similar to those he used to condemn the Ryan budget plan. “If you’re going to have very large-scale change, whether to Social Security or Medicare,” he said, “the American people have to have a chance to decide how they are going to solve it.”
What? Consensus-based leadership? Sounds squishy. The conservative voters Gingrich needs will never go for it.
Dana Milbank’s email address is danamilbank@ washpost.com.