Newt Gingrich is flying high. The former speaker of the House has rocketed to the top of the Republican polls, taking a 30-point lead in Florida and giving one-time GOP front-runner Mitt Romney a run for his money in New Hampshire. What’s more, the competition around him seems to be collapsing. Herman Cain is history; Romney has slowly but steadily lost support nationwide; Rick Perry is still making fun of himself for a gaffe everyone else stopped talking about last month; Michele Bachmann fell in a crowded primary forest and never made a sound. Gingrich, for one, is ready to declare victory. As he told ABC’s Jake Tapper on Thursday, “I’m going to be the nominee.”
Well, Gingrich may be on a roll, but he’s overlooking the one truly formidable candidate who stands between him and the nomination: former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. He is in many ways the perfect foil for the current GOP front-runner. Here, in 13 episodes, is much of the baggage you’re likely to see aired soon in anti-Gingrich attack ads. For him, it won’t be Christmas in Iowa.
The front seat: It’s a testament to Herman Cain’s utterly catastrophic collapse that Gingrich has emerged as a palatable alternative for family-values conservatives. But it won’t last. Gingrich had a six-year affair with his third wife while he was still married to his second. He had an affair with his second wife while he was still married to his first wife. And as we previously reported, during his 1974 campaign, a former aide described “approaching a car with Gingrich’s daughters in hand, only to find the candidate with a woman, her head buried in his lap.” Another former aide alleged that Gingrich had attempted to seduce her, Chaz Reinhold-style, after the death of a relative.
The back seat: On the flight back from Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral in Israel in November 1995, Gingrich was asked to sit in the back of Air Force One, rather than up front with President Clinton. As a result, Gingrich upped his demands in the budget fight, leading to a historic government shutdown. “It’s petty, but I think it’s human,” Gingrich explained at the time. The New York Daily News put Gingrich on its cover dressed in a diaper, holding a bottle and crying.
The couch: Have you seen the advertisement in which Newt sits in a love seat with Nancy Pelosi, on behalf of Al Gore’s nonprofit, to call for Congress to take action on climate change? Well, you will—Rep. Ron Paul has already featured the clip in an online ad. Although he maintained at the time that “our country must take action to prevent climate change,” Gingrich now says he doesn’t think the science is settled and it’s not the government’s role to involve itself with climate change.
He calls the ad his single biggest regret in life. Which brings us to…
The hospital bed: In some ways, the fact, first reported in MoJo, that Gingrich hammered out the details of his first divorce while his wife was in the hospital recovering from cancer isn’t even the most damaging revelation from that story. But it’s certainly damaging. One longtime Gingrich aide recalled: “Newt came up there with his yellow legal pad, and he had a list of things on how the divorce was going to be handled. He wanted her to sign it. She was still recovering from surgery, still sort of out of it, and he comes in with a yellow sheet of paper, handwritten, and wants her to sign it.” It’s a damaging enough story that he felt compelled to mention it in his new fight-the-smears, site, “Answering the Attacks.”
The smoke-filled room: Since leaving Congress in 1998, Gingrich has reinvented himself as the epitome of everyone’s worst stereotypes of a Washington insider. His consulting firm has brought in more than $100 million in contracts since 2000, including $1.6 million from government-backed housing giant Freddie Mac—a payment Gingrich said initially was for his analysis as “a historian.” Although never a registered a lobbyist, he certainly fit the definition.
The inglorious exit: It almost seems like an afterthought given everything he’s done before and since, but Gingrich left Capitol Hill in disgrace, resigning from the House of Representatives after being slapped with a $300,000 fine for ethics violations. The only reason this hasn’t appeared in a Mitt Romney campaign ad yet is that, up until recently, it didn’t seem necessary.
The border: On immigration, Gingrich boldly went where Rick Perry had gone before, telling GOP voters that they should think twice before indiscriminately deporting all undocumented residents. To put it mildly, that’s heresy among social conservative voters in Iowa, where Gingrich hopes to win big. It’s a big reason why Perry is currently polling in single digits.
The doghouse: Gingrich rose to the top of his party in the ’90s by eating his own. He publicly rebuked the leader of his own party, then-president George H.W. Bush, on taxes. He aggravated senior members of his party like Bob Dole, who famously chewed him out for trying to have it both ways on spending, calling Gingrich and his cohorts “young hypocrites.” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) was just as dismissive: “He also has this incredible sense of exaggeration. Like, I don’t know how many times he’ll say, ‘This is the most corrupt act in the history of Western Civilization,’ or ‘the most despicable.’ You can only say that so many times.” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a former congressman, told Fox News Sunday that “I’m not inclined to be a supporter of Newt Gingrich’s having served under him for four years and experienced personally his leadership.” After Gingrich criticized Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan in June, the Wisconsin congressman said, “With friends like that, who needs enemies.” Newt’s got plenty of enemies.
Planet Earth: Gingrich was a dues-paying member of the Sierra Club, as Mike Mechanic noted, from 1984 to 1990. During that period, he publicly opposed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, calling it a “180-day quick fix.” In the name of preventing global warming, he also supported the 1989 Global Warming Prevention Act, which called for global population control—hugely problematic for social conservatives, who conflate family-planning programs with contraception and abortion. In 2009, he called for “mandatory carbon caps,” a position he now derides as an “anti-energy, big bureaucracy agenda.” It goes much, much deeper than a one-time-off appearance on a couch with Pelosi. Speaking of large, gaseous spheres…
Planet Newt: When he tried out for his high school football team in the 1960s, the equipment manager had to order a custom-made helmet to accommodate his head. This, it turned out, was a metaphor: Newt Gingrich is arrogant. It’s not a cheap shot to say that. He said it himself, many times over. To read through Gingrich’s log of quotes is to hear a politician perpetually talking about himself. “If you’re not in the Washington Post everyday, you might as well not exist,” he said in 1989. “I’m unavoidable,” he said in 1985. “I represent real power.” In 1989, he explained why he fought with his second wife: “It’s not even that it matters to me. It’s just the habit of dominance, the habit of being the center of my staff and the center of the news media.” It’s not just off-putting; it’s often disastrous. As conservative columnist George Will argued on Sunday, Gingrich “embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive…His temperament—intellectual hubris distilled—makes him blown about by gusts of enthusiasm for intellectual fads…”
Mandate, mandate, mandate: Have you heard of this thing called Obamacare? It’s a pretty big deal on the political right, mostly because it contains an individual mandate requiring people to buy health insurance if they can afford it. Gingrich has been characteristically outspoken in his opposition to the mandate recently. But there’s one little problem: Before he decided it was an unconstitutional, tyrannical abuse of power, he was all for the individual mandate. In a 2007 column, he called on Congress to “require anyone who earns more than $50,000 a year to purchase health insurance or post a bond.” He made the same pitch in 2005. Hey, there’s even a video of it—and, what do you know, he’s sitting just across from conservative favorite Hillary Clinton:
Odds of this appearing in someone else’s campaign ad? 1-1.
The exodus: Gingrich’s political aggression and impulsiveness sometimes pays off. It also frequently ends in disaster—as it did last June, when his entire Iowa campaign staff quit en masse over complaints that (among other things) he lacked discipline and frugality. To the extent that many of those staffers then went on to work for Perry, you could say that Gingrich had the last laugh. But the consequence of that is that Gingrich didn’t even have an Iowa campaign office until late last week. Organization is everything in the caucuses, and with just a few weeks to go, Newt doesn’t really have one.
Front page image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr