By Alexander Reed Kelly
Newt Gingrich has made it clear that if he can’t be president, he’s going to try to take Mitt Romney down with him. But the former House speaker’s endless stream of attack ads could, perversely, end up strengthening the “Massachusetts Moderate,” who seems likely to survive the onslaught.
Consider the 2008 presidential campaign, in which Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama fought a bloody, six-month trench war for the Democratic nomination. As time ran out, Clinton launched a “kitchen sink” offensive, so named for her campaign’s willingness to stop at nothing to win. Even as Obama took an insurmountable lead in the delegate count, Clinton and her strategists clawed at his weak spots, openly questioning his ability to protect the country’s national security and publicizing his association with former Weather Underground member William Ayers and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Eugene Robinson, who would win a Pulitzer for his columns that year, compared Clinton to “a homicidal cyborg from the future,” and the liberal journalist worried that “the longer this slugfest continues, the more the eventual nominee is tarnished in the eyes of independents who are looking for bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems.” We all know what happened next.
Gingrich does not seem to share any concerns about tarnishing Romney, the chosen one. Following the Iowa caucuses, which Romney blasted out of Newt’s clutches with several kilotons of negative advertising, Gingrich said: “We are not going to go out and run nasty ads. We’re not going to run 30-second gotchas. But I do reserve the right to tell the truth, and if the truth seems negative, that may be more a comment on his [Romney’s] record than it is on politics.”
Whether they give the truth or not, Gingrich’s acerbic ads could strip the porcelain off the sink that Hillary tossed at her rival four years ago. A super PAC acting on behalf of Gingrich has gone so far as to release a 28-minute commercial, one that inspired Internet pundit Andrew Sullivan to write a post titled “Yes, Romney Could Lose.”
Gingrich’s teardown seems to be having an effect, with Romney’s numbers in the South Carolina primary campaign dipping in the last few days. Similarly, in the 2008 Democratic race Clinton’s broadsides did some damage to Obama, but in the end he emerged from the primary process a stronger candidate, mostly inoculated against his political imperfections.
Whatever line of attack Republican nominee John McCain was considering against Obama, Clinton had beaten him to it. Her sorties drilled Obama’s campaign into shape, and everyone from the candidate to his volunteers knew how to respond to virtually any criticism. As an added bonus, by the time the Democratic convention was over, the press and public had seen Obama pounded endlessly on his principal vulnerabilities and were ready to move on. McCain’s self-portrayal as a seasoned national security expert going up against a neophyte who worshiped in the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s pews was like the second volcano movie to come out in a single year. Voters exposed to previous eruptions gave it a yawn.
(Also, Obama benefited greatly from his ability to eventually bury the hatchet with Clinton and unite his party. His successful conciliation supported the claim that he had a talent for bringing people together and could work with his enemies.)
And now we find ourselves in a very different primary campaign, although this coronation also has turned surprisingly ugly.
President Obama’s campaign team has been preparing for a showdown with Mitt Romney for years. They know Romney’s weaknesses as well as any Republican, and they have access to the same video clips that Newt Gingrich and the political action committees backing him are now dumping into the South Carolina air. (Gingrich made a show of asking one of his PACs to rein it in, but Winning Our Future says it will not comply.)
If word is going to get out that Mitt Romney is a rich flip-flopper who likes to fire people—and it will—it is not to Romney’s benefit, nor the GOP’s, to wait until October to confront such charges. Whether his opponent is Ron Paul or Barack Obama, Romney isn’t going anywhere but down if he can’t dodge the most obvious swings. And the quicker CNN’s warehouse of on-air personalities sucks the marrow out of a particular Romney weakness, the less interested they’ll be months from now when Obama media operatives are pushing the same tired story.
All this assumes Romney will make it to the general election, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which he is not the Republican nominee. Sullivan writes that the Republican establishment may panic when it wakes up to the political downside of Romney’s hedge fund résumé. The candidate “didn’t just fire thousands of working class people in restructuring and in closing companies,” the reformed Republican blogger explains. “He made a fucking unimaginable fortune doing it.” Sullivan has a point, but why should we expect the Republican establishment to be concerned about Romney’s pro-corporate, Wall Street leanings when that’s precisely what it likes about him?
Romney will win the GOP nomination for the same reason he was always going to win: Who else? For all their newfound populism, the other Republican candidates are pure fringe and they rarely make any sense. (How is it possible that a man who used to hang out at something called “Niggerhead Ranch” was not shouted out of the race?)
Make no mistake, the 2012 Republican primaries, as long as they remain contentious, hostile and odd, are the fun part. The general election is shaping up as a match between two well-funded, highly trained overachievers who will undoubtedly bore us to death over the next 10 months. However much Republicans hate the Obama presidency and Democrats fear a return to the Bush years, a Romney-Obama contest will have as much excitement as a spelling bee.
And all the advertising in the world isn’t going to change that.
AP / Paul Sancya
Newt Gingrich, left, shares a laugh with Mitt Romney during a Republican debate in November.