The Conservative Backlash Against Newt Gingrich

The tide has turned on Newt Gingrich, especially among conservatives.

By + More

In a political season known for its twists and turns, this week's twist was pretty amazing to watch: the conservative take-down of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. In the wake of his big win in South Carolina, the backlash began this week. There are some who believe all of this was orchestrated by the Romney campaign, but I'm not so sure. It's not clear to me that the conservative movement likes former Gov. Mitt Romney, either. I don't buy into the conspiracy— former Gov. Sarah Palin says the "establishment" is trying to "crucify" Gingrich, as she defended the First Dude's endorsement of Newt—I just think that conservatives who have never liked Speaker Gingrich but have been holding their tongues suddenly realized that he might actually have a shot at the nomination. This week, there was a Speak-Now-or-Forever-Hold-Your-Peace moment. Forever holding one's peace didn't look like a good idea anymore.

[ Scott Galupo: Sarah Palin's Newt Gingrich Embrace]

The anti-Newt arguments aimed at grassroots conservative voters came in rapid fire. Three were particularly persuasive, and the first of those was from George Will. If you believe that we need Gingrich because he'll beat President Obama in the fall debates, you need to read this:

Just 11 days after finishing fourth in New Hampshire, Gingrich's pugnacity in two debates enraptured South Carolinians, especially when he waxed indignant about the supposition that the risk-taking in his personal life--e.g., having an affair during an indignation festival against Bill Clinton--is pertinent to his fitness for the presidency. Gingrich encourages Republican voters to believe he should be nominated because he would do best in the (at most) three debates with Barack Obama. So, because Gingrich might sparkle during four and a half hours of debates, he should be given four years of control of nuclear weapons? Odd.

[ Read the U.S. News debate: Can Newt Gingrich Beat Barack Obama? ]

The second came from former Assistant Secretary of State Eliott Abrams, who was President Reagan's point man on fighting the Sandinistas in the 1980s. In the National Review this week, Abrams recounted his personal experience with Gingrich, who opposed Abrams and the Reagan administration on fighting the Soviets; he then names other members of Congress who were far more supportive of Reagan, namely Reps. Henry Hyde, Dick Cheney, Dan Burton, Connie Mack, and Tom Delay; and then ends by quoting Gingrich insulting Reagan in a 1980s-era floor statement, all to devastating effect.

As a new member of Congress in the Reagan years — and I was an assistant secretary of state — Mr. Gingrich voted with the president regularly, but equally often spewed insulting rhetoric at Reagan, his top aides, and his policies to defeat Communism. Gingrich was voluble and certain in predicting that Reagan's policies would fail, and in all of this he was dead wrong.

[ See a slide show of Newt Gingrich's career]

The third hit came from R. Emmet Tyrrell, the former publisher of the conservative American Spectator magazine. If you believe that we need Newt Gingrich as our nominee because of his big ideas and above-average intelligence, you need to read "William Jefferson Gingrich" by Tyrrell. He compares the former president and the former speaker, after admitting that he first noticed nearly two decades ago that "Newt Gingrich is conservatism's Bill Clinton, but without the charm":

Newt and Bill, as 1960s generation self-promoters, share the same duplicity, ostentatious braininess, a propensity for endless scrapes with propriety and the law. They are tireless hustlers. Now Newt is hustling my fellow conservatives in this election. The last time around he successfully hustled conservatives in the House of Representatives and then the conservatives on the House impeachment committee.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Newt Gingrich.]

So the three biggest attributes that Gingrich supporters point to as evidence of his electability—his skill in debates, his support of Reaganism, and his intellectual prowess—were eviscerated not by moderates aligned with Romney but by the most widely-read conservative columnist, a former high-level Reagan official, and one of the most popular conservative publishers of the last two decades. These weren't the only ones to come forward this week; there were others as well. The tide is turning against Newt Gingrich, and in any other election year, I'd say if he loses Florida, Gingrich is probably finished. He's taken a big hit from conservatives on the right. But this isn't any normal election year, and who knows where we'll be even a week from now. Stay tuned.