Newt Gingrich never saw it ending this way. The former House speaker, who has long thought of himself as a historic figure, envisioned he would be the candidate of innovative “big ideas” and the agenda-setter for the 2012 U.S. election.
This either would catapult him to the White House or ensure a consolation prize: a vice presidential nomination or secretary of State appointment in a Republican administration. In the worst case, he would be a genuine senior statesman in his party.
Instead, as he all but officially dropped out of the race last week, Gingrich is seen as a candidate who trafficked in flaky ideas, incendiary rhetoric and fiscal irresponsibility — with a campaign going nowhere and deeply in debt as he traveled on expensive private jets. He has become a favorite punch line for the late-night television satirists Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and David Letterman.
Unsuccessful presidential candidates can leave political footprints: Rick Santorum this year, Ronald Reagan in 1976 and, in retrospect, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney four years ago.
Gingrich isn’t going to join that crowd. His self-styled big ideas didn’t catch on, politically or substantively. Instead, he gave critics and comedians an arsenal of ammunition.
The thrice-married, ethically sanctioned Gingrich presented his candidacy as the moral crusade necessary to save America. Without him, our grandchildren were in danger of growing up in a “secular, atheist country” that would be “dominated by radical Islamists.” For Gingrich, those aren’t contradictory.
Some of his big ideas were recycled conservative Republican orthodoxy: slash taxes, eliminate the estate tax and the levies on capital gains paid chiefly by the wealthy.
Others were novel. In Florida, he vowed to build a colony on the moon by the end of his presidency. This, he said, was analogous to John F. Kennedy’s pledge in 1961 to put an American on the moon by the end of the decade.
On the judiciary, he called for eliminating courts that he said were engaged in “radically anti-American” decisions; if necessary, he would send federal marshals and U.S. Capitol police to arrest these radical judges. Former Republican U.S. attorneys general and some leading conservative legal scholars expressed alarm.
He took a pro-gun position to a new level, even managing to suggest that battery-powered cars like the Chevrolet Volt posed a threat to the Second Amendment. “You can’t put a gun rack in a Volt,” he told his fellow Georgians. “We believe in the right to bear arms and we like to bear the arms in our trucks.” Two weeks ago, he vowed that “a Gingrich presidency will submit to the UN a treaty that extends the right to bear arms as a human right to every person on the planet.”
He was the first to seize on rising gasoline prices as a political issue. No one was going to out-promise him: Gingrich pledged to cut gas prices by about 50 percent, to $2.50 a gallon, during his administration, without really saying how.
He offered Iowans a solution for rooting out illegal immigrants: “We send a package to every person who is here illegally,” he explained. “When it’s delivered, we pull it up, we know exactly where they are, it’s on the computer.”
He didn’t shy away from foreign policy. On the Middle East, he declared that the Palestinians were an “invented people.” He was against involvement in Libya before he was for it.
Gingrich also had a knack for self-inflicted wounds. Last year, appealing to the anti-government Tea Party, he said the chief culprits of the financial crisis were the mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. At a Dartmouth College debate in October, the one-time history professor suggested that Rep. Barney Frank and former Sen. Christopher Dodd, both Democrats, should be thrown in jail for their complicity in protecting these government-sponsored enterprises.
On Nov. 16, it was revealed that Gingrich had been on the Freddie Mac payroll over a period of years, raking in $1.6 million. He initially explained that he had been hired to serve as a historian. When he finally provided the specifics of his contract, his academic credentials weren’t mentioned.
To be sure, the Georgia Republican showed remarkable resilience. After initially getting in the contest he scored well in some polls, perhaps thanks to his high-name recognition from his dominant role in politics during the 1990s. He frittered away that advantage, going on an exotic vacation and eschewing tough retail campaigning, and much of his top staff quit in frustration.
His forceful presence allowed him to dominate some of the primary debates and he forged back into the lead. He was the front-runner before the Freddie Mac revelations. He was clobbered in the initial contests, then came back in mid-January to score an upset win in the South Carolina nominating contest.
Romney waged a relentless and vicious assault on Gingrich; almost half the total ads in Iowa, where seven Republican candidates were competing, were anti-Gingrich messages, most from the Romney political action committee. After South Carolina, these Romney forces flooded the Florida airwaves with more attacks.
Some of the hits were fair game, particularly those emphasizing the Freddie Mac connection or Gingrich’s more incendiary comments. Others weren’t, for example the repeated assertion that Gingrich’s fellow Republicans removed him as House speaker in 1998 because of his ethical transgressions.
Still, when the heat was on, he wilted. His counterattacks on Romney’s private-equity background were clumsy and counterproductive. In a crucial Florida debate, Romney dominated him. In the final 10 weeks of the primary campaign, Gingrich came off as erratic and, at times, comical, visiting zoos and aimlessly ruminating. At times, he suggested that he was just too big for this campaign and probably the country.
He seemed more intent on creating a cult than a campaign. He failed at both.
Albert Hunt is Washington editor at Bloomberg News.