Today’s Courier Herald Column:
With more political observers declaring the Gingrich candidacy again on the ascendancy, a simple but uncomfortable question is quickly and continually raised by doubters: Can he win?
They ask not about the nomination. The Republican nomination remains a race that Romney, Perry, Cain, and Gingrich seem at times each trying desperately to lose, with Cain seeming to be quickly joining the ranks of Bachmann and Pawlenty of those who have succeeded. The question is simply can he beat Barack Obama.
Newt Gingrich has an extremely long record in public life. He was elected to Congress on his third try and became a back bench bomb thrower, eventually challenging his own party’s structure from within. He managed to put together a coalition that took control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. He presided as Speaker over the first balanced federal budget in most of our lifetimes.
Yet he also was fined $300,000 by the House Ethics Committee. He’s blamed or credited for the government shutdown of 1995 and 1996. He was driven out of his Speakership by his own leadership team after a failed coup attempt against him a year earlier. His current wife is his third.
The record stipulates that Newt has baggage. But as he has wandered through the early part of this campaign under the radar after his initial campaign implosion, Newt got used to commercial flights instead of private jets. A humbling but learning experience, Newt also got practice in checking his baggage.
With politics as sport metaphors becoming all too common, early losses don’t seem to count as much as the later ones. Gingrich’s loss in the season opener doesn’t look so bad in comparison to the drubbing current front runner Herman Cain is taking. The shock value of Gingrich’s failures and shortcomings are long gone. He is a known entity. Anyone looking at the current Republican field likely knows what they are getting with Gingrich, for better or for worse.
Contrast that with the presumed front runner Mitt Romney. He, like Gingrich, is viewed as intelligent and capable. There is little doubt that he could handle the job. But conservatives, fiscal and social, continue to question if he is really one of them.
Gingrich, on the other hand, is so closely identified with conservatism that many Democrats are licking their chops to see him as the nominee. They believe that it will be easy to paint him as extreme, and can reacquaint him with his baggage as an added bonus. The comparison relevant to Gingrich is from his own era as speaker.
Bill Clinton was the candidate that Republicans wanted to face. He brought with him his own special assortment of baggage. He was a known womanizer, with an active scandal open during his campaign. He was also a draft dodger, whereas all Presidents who were elected before him had served in the military.
There was no way he could beat George H. W. Bush, who had just won a war in the Middle East in less time than it took to assemble the troops there. Bush had presided over the fall of the Berlin Wall. His popularity had reached 89%. But in November of 1992, none of this mattered. It was “the economy, stupid.”
Barack Obama has the trophies of Osama Bin Laden AND Moammar Gadhafi, but he also has an economy much worse than Americans faced in 1992. Obama made sure Bin Laden will not be an issue on the ballot in 2012. What will be will be jobs, deficits, and perhaps the greatest uncertainty this country has faced in multiple generations.
Democrats seem encouraged that the Occupy movement is taking hold, feeling this will be their answer to the TEA Party which organized against them to take the House and neutralize the Senate. And the occupy movement may be Gingrich’s biggest bully club.
As best most can discern, the occupy movement is well beyond support of union rights or to protect entitlements. The majority of those protesting seem to be against all capitalism and personal wealth. But someone must distinctly draw this contrast and articulate it to voters.
Gingrich has returned to viable candidate status among Republicans largely on the strength of his debate appearances. The general election debate, given one who can articulate conservatism, will be a clear distinction between a market based free enterprise system and one which the government supplies equal outcomes to all by confiscating the means of production from the producers.
If the issue of this campaign remains “the economy, stupid”, then negative ads about Gingrich’s long viewed baggage will seem quite petty in contrast to distinct visions of the direction of the American economic system. His dirty laundry has been aired, and his bags then checked. This election will ultimately be a referendum on the incumbent. That is, provided Republicans nominate someone who is able to draw the contrast.