Now that former Speaker Newt Gingrich is a frontline contender, he's going to have to dispense with the idea that he can win this thing without taking the gloves off against a fellow Republican.
He floated this gentle attack in an interview with a South Carolina radio station:
I don't claim to be the perfect candidate, I just claim to be a lot more conservative than Mitt Romney and a lot more electable than anybody else.
That's a start, but it won't do.
Let me pause for station identification: I don't want to see a President Gingrich. But what I'd like to see happen more than anything else is for former Gov. Mitt Romney to suffer a mortal defeat and disappear from the national scene.
Mitt Romney puts me in mind of the way filmmaker Alexander Payne once described Tom Cruise to me: "I don't sense a man there. I sense a bristling mass of ambition."
So here's some free advice for ol' Newton Leroy:
Don't fall for the purity test trap. Gingrich has enough apostasy baggage of his own, and, anyway, it's kind of a cul-de-sac. The "flip-flop" thing hurt Romney in '08, it's true, and it's hurting him now. But what did highlighting this fact ultimately accomplish for former Gov. Mike Huckabee and Gov. Sam Brownback?
Sen. John McCain was highly vulnerable to an attack from the right, but he won the nomination because more Republicans thought he was the most electable candidate.
Which brings us to the second part of Gingrich's argument—electability.
Does he really want to go there just now? If there's anyone in the GOP race whom Beltway Republicans have even less personal affection for than Mitt Romney, it's Newt Gingrich. Yeah, sure, he "resigned" from the House. He resigned like Joe Paterno "retired." And he hasn't been elected to any office since.
Still, there's a way Newt can effectively undermine Romney and get himself back in the good graces of the conservative base. He needs to stay out of the briar patch of Romney's position on this or that issue, and focus on one thing: his accomplishments as speaker.
If I were Newt Gingrich, I'd dial down the "vision thing" and draw these contrasts:
What has Mitt Romney ever done, while in office, to advance the conservative cause? He got himself elected in a bedrock liberal state and served four unspectacular years. Whoop-de-do. Name one instance where Mitt Romney fought for conservative principles when it didn't suit his electoral needs.
Newt was the architect of the most significant rightward shift in the politics of the whole nation, not just one state. Domestically, he did more to slow the growth of government than Ronald Reagan did. After he departed, the party beat a retreat from the Contract with America legacy, and, under Rep. Tom DeLay, emitted an ethical stench far more fetid than the overblown controversy over Gingrich's book deal.
As he cynically outflanks Rick Perry on Social Security, what reason does Mitt Romney give Republicans to believe that he will tackle federal entitlements? Gingrich was crucified for frontally challenging the Medicare bureaucracy now known as CMS. He effected reductions in Medicare spending that were so deep, Congress had to give money back.
If Mitt wants to talk authorship of the individual mandate, Newt should bring up Medicaid—i.e., the federal program that picks up about half the tab of Romneycare's benefits.
Individual mandate aside, would Newt Gingrich ever have agreed to that? The same Newt Gingrich who, with the 1996 welfare reform effort, dragged a Democratic president into agreeing to a curtailment of a major New Deal program?
Again, I don't like the idea of President Gingrich. I happen to think that his speakership was an erratic mess that was reflective of his flakily grandiose intellect; that the '95 shutdown was counterproductive; that, to the extent he was successful at all, he benefited from both a booming economy and the fact that there was an Eisenhower Republican in the White House at the time.
Then again, I think he was exactly right about the "social engineering" aspect of the Medicare voucherization plan, and I think he shrewdly played against type when he called for "humane" immigration reform.
Newt Gingrich is a flawed and in many ways unlikeable person. But I wish him the best in his battle against the bristling mass of ambition known as Mitt Romney.