Night of the Living Newt

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  December 15, 2011


The bulk of Republican primary voters have become accustomed, over time, to a political discourse of pure, unfiltered negativity. As a result, the GOP is now a political party of anger and contempt — a talk show in action, where leaders are expected to be mean, arrogant, and utterly dismissive of their opponents, which include Democrats, the media, and RINOs (Republicans in Name Only).

That attitude pervades the conservative movement, in radio programming, books, Web sites, Fox News programs, and speeches. Whether it's Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Michelle Malkin, David Limbaugh, and Erick Erickson, or Mitch McConnell, Eric Cantor, and John Boehner, they are all essentially copying from the playbook created by Gingrich, along with Rush Limbaugh, in the 1980s and '90s.

No wonder, then, that so many of these rank-and-file Republicans believe that Gingrich would be the best debater against Barack Obama, or that, according to a new Rasmussen poll, far more of them think Gingrich has a better chance against Obama than does Romney. Other hopefuls are pale imitations; nobody can match Gingrich for condescension to his questioners, hyperbole in his critiques, and smugness in his declarations.

Nor are most others intelligent and informed enough to sound, as Paul Krugman recently put it, like "a stupid man's idea of what a smart person sounds like."

Gingrich may also be the most calculatingly nasty Republican on the national scene since Joe McCarthy or Richard Nixon. And now he is turning that talent against Romney, thwarting Romney's attempts to attack him.

At this past Saturday's debate in Iowa, Gingrich insulted Romney — saying the only reason he's not a career politician is because he couldn't beat Ted Kennedy — before Romney could get off a jab of his own. And that was after insisting all day he would not go negative.

On Monday, when Romney called for Gingrich to return the fees he received from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Gingrich responded that he would do so only after Romney returns all the money he made from firing people and bankrupting companies. That shiv, too, was delivered between claims that he would, under no circumstances, say anything negative about Romney.

For all of Romney's impressive history of devious attacks, control of news cycles, dishonesty, and manipulation of campaign-finance rules, he is now up against the master.

It was Gingrich, after all, who rose to power by assaulting, with high dudgeon, the inflated or entirely imagined misdeeds of political enemies. He drove Democratic Speaker Jim Wright of Texas from office, for instance, through a vicious campaign to embarrass him over questionable ethics violations; he also had aides spread rumors that Speaker Bob Foley was a child molester and claimed that the Clinton administration was full of former drug users. All of this is now standard practice among conservatives, who decreed President Barack Obama's administration the most corrupt in history before it even took office.

It was Gingrich who adapted to new forms of media, to promote himself while deriding Washington — for instance, by giving rip-roaring speeches in the empty House chamber that would be viewed on the new C-SPAN cable network, and by doing interviews on the newly emerging conservative talk-radio shows (including Limbaugh's) that others thought beneath a congressman's dignity.

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Related: Republican whisper campaigns, QUIZ: Candidate or Criminal?, The Year Ahead in Mitt, More more >
  Topics: Talking Politics , Politics, Republicans, Newt Gingrich,  More more >
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