Newt and the Revenge of the Base
It is one of the true delights of a bizarrely entertaining Republican presidential contest to watch the apoplectic fear and loathing of so many GOP establishmentarians toward Newt Gingrich. They treat him as an alien body whose approach to politics they have always rejected.
In fact, Gingrich’s rise is the revenge of a Republican base that takes seriously the intense hostility to President Obama, the incendiary accusations against liberals, and the Manichaean division of the world between an “us” and a “them” that his party has been peddling in the interest of electoral success.
The right-wing faithful know Gingrich pioneered this style of politics, and they laugh at efforts to cast the former House speaker as something other than a “true conservative.” They know better.
The Establishment was happy to use Gingrich’s tactics to win elections, but it never expected to lose control of the party to the voters it rallied with such grandiose negativity. Now, the joke is on those who manipulated the base. The base is striking back, and Newt is their weapon.
It’s not as if the criticisms being leveled at Gingrich are wrong. On the contrary, there is a flamboyant self-importance and an eerie sense of mission about him. “I am a transformational figure,” he has said. He explains the hatred of his enemies as growing from their realization that “I’m so systematically purposeful about changing our world.” He has also declared: “I have an enormous personal ambition. I want to shift the entire planet. And I’m doing it.”
But wait a minute: Gingrich offered the first set of thoughts in 1994 and spoke of shifting the planet way back in 1985. Newt, in other words, has been Newt for a long time. Yet many of the same conservatives who now find him so distasteful were cheering him on for the very same qualities when he was their vehicle for seizing control of the House of Representatives in 1994. Liberals who criticized these traits in Gingrich back then were tut-tutted for not “getting it,” for failing to understand the man’s genius. It’s only now, when Gingrich threatens the GOP’s chances of defeating Obama, that party elders have decided that what they once saw as visionary self-confidence is, in fact, debilitating hubris.
Gingrich is said to be too tough on his opponents, too quick to issue outlandish charges. He’s actually been quite candid about his take-no-prisoners approach to politics.
“One of the great problems we have had in the Republican Party is that we . . . encourage you to be neat, obedient, and loyal and faithful, and all those Boy Scout words which would be great around the campfire but are lousy in politics…. You’re fighting a war. It is a war for power…. Don’t try to educate. That is not your job. What is the primary purpose of a political leader? To build a majority.”
That would be Gingrich in 1978, reported by John M. Barry in his excellent “The Ambition and the Power,” a book about the fall of former House Speaker Jim Wright and Gingrich’s role in bringing him down. Again, Gingrich is a thoroughly consistent figure. The guy you see now is the same guy who always preached a scorched-earth approach to politics.
And in truth, the party took his approach to heart. If discrediting John Kerry’s service in Southeast Asia through false attacks in 2004 was what it took to re-elect a president who had avoided going to Vietnam, what the heck. Those who believe in Boy Scout virtues don’t belong in politics, right?
Perhaps the Establishment will yet manage to block Gingrich. There are certainly enough contradictions in his record, and he carries more baggage than an overburdened hotel porter. When National Review, that keeper of conservative ideological standards, recently criticized Gingrich for “his impulsiveness, his grandiosity, his weakness for half-baked (and not especially conservative) ideas,” its editors were reciting from a catechism that his critics wrote long ago. Meet the new Newt, same as the old Newt.
This quality endows Gingrich with a peculiar integrity, which I realize is a problematic word to apply to such a problematic figure. He is who he is and always has been. The base knows this and loves him for it. But for Republican leaders, Gingrich has become inconvenient. He’s the loudmouthed uninvited guest who is trying to rejoin the country club. The effort to blackball Newt Gingrich will be the next drama in this fascinating train wreck of a campaign.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group