05.18.11

Newt Gingrich's Disastrous Rollout

Can the ex-speaker’s 2012 campaign recover from a stumbling start that has infuriated the right? Howard Kurtz on why conservatives are so angry at their onetime champion.

Rich Galen, who worked for Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, says his former boss has really damaged himself with his bungled presidential campaign launch.

“On the Richter scale it’s pretty serious—7.2. It feeds into the greatest fear about Newt’s candidacy, that he can’t help himself. He’s missing the gene that says because it comes into your head, it doesn’t have to come out of your mouth.”

The question about Gingrich was always whether he had the discipline to mount a successful White House campaign. He is getting hammered by the right over a disastrous appearance on Meet the Press, leaving him apologizing and backtracking this week. (Gingrich says he wasn’t prepared for the hostile tone on David Gregory’s set. Huh? He’s done the show 35 times.)

The former House speaker got tripped up not over questions about his affair and subsequent marriage to his third wife but about policy, which is supposed to be his great strength.

Gingrich dissed the Paul Ryan Medicare voucher plan, saying he didn’t like “right-wing social engineering” any better than the left-wing kind. He called it a “radical” bill. Small problem: All but four House Republicans voted in favor of the Ryan budget plan, and Newt just stuck his finger in their eye—“using the most incendiary language he could come up with,” as Galen puts it.

Gingrich has called Ryan to apologize and loudly proclaims he would have voted for the bill that he branded as radical. “I made a mistake,” he told Fox’s Greta Van Susteren. He explained in a conference call with conservative bloggers: “The scale of change we are proposing is very, very large and affects people's lives in a very personal way. We should not try to impose on the people a plan they don't understand.”

The former Georgia congressman also backed a key part of Mitt Romney’s health-care bill—an individual mandate to buy insurance—which, as a video clip showed, he also supported in an appearance with Tim Russert back in 1993. The problem is that a mandate is a cornerstone of Obamacare, which Gingrich says he wants to repeal. Now Gingrich is tying himself in knots trying to explain away his comments.

Is this really an earthquake that threatens to swallow Gingrich’s fledgling candidacy? “Gingrich campaign fights for its life,” says a Wednesday headline on Politico. And look at this Daily Caller column by GOP strategist Alex Castellanos: “The same Gingrich who left one wife in her sickbed with cancer, then abandoned another struggling against multiple sclerosis, has now thrown his entire party under the bus in pursuit of his own ambition.” Ouch.

I would caution that it’s early, the Republican field is not overpowering, and the political pundits buried John McCain again and again before he won the nomination in 2008. Still, the not-so-friendly fire from conservatives is pretty heavy.

“This is a big deal. He’s done,” columnist Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News. “He didn’t have a big chance from the beginning, but now it’s over. Apart from being contradictory and incoherent, as we saw in those two bites, you showed where he contradicted himself in the course of one day on the individual mandate—calling the Republican plan, which all but four Republican members of the House have now endorsed and will be running on, calling it radical and right-wing social engineering is deadly.”

And then there is this headline on the Wall Street Journal editorial page. It reads, simply, “ Gingrich to House GOP: Drop Dead.

National Review editor Rich Lowry rolls his eyes at the Gingrich rhetoric:

“That’s Newt being Newt … He can’t help himself. Gingrich prefers extravagant lambasting when a mere distancing would do, and the overarching theoretical construct to a mundane pander. He is drawn irresistibly to operatic overstatement—sometimes brilliant, always interesting, and occasionally downright absurd …

“When he was speaker of the House, he alienated his colleagues (some of whom roll their eyes at the mere mention of his name) and dragged himself, his family, and his party through a psychodrama. If he were to replicate that performance in the White House, it’d be a formula for a LBJ- or Nixon-style meltdown.

When the editor of conservatism’s most important magazine is comparing your emotional state to that of Richard Nixon, I’d say you have a problem.

Rush Limbaugh was a key Gingrich ally back in the 1990s, and when the Republicans took over the House in 1995, El Rushbo was made an honorary member of the freshman class. So how did Limbaugh react?

“I am not going to justify this. I am not going to explain it,” he told listeners.

"The attack on Paul Ryan, the support for an individual mandate in health care? Folks, don’t ask me to explain this. There is no explanation! What do you mean, 'If I don't explain it, who will?' There is no explanation for it. First off, it cuts Paul Ryan off at the knees. It supports the Obama administration in the lawsuits that 26 states have filed over the mandate. I guess, what? Back in 1993, Newt supported an individual mandate, everybody should buy insurance. I am as befuddled as anyone else is what I’m telling you.”

And then there are the side issues. On Van Susteren’s show Tuesday night, Gingrich wouldn’t comment on a Politico report that in 2005 and 2006 he owed between $250,000 and $500,000 to Tiffany’s, according to his financial disclosure.

When Gingrich was doing Sunday talk shows as House speaker, says Galen, he and another top aide, Joe Gaylord, had to protect him from himself:

“The rule was, from the time he got into makeup until he was on the set, only we could talk to him. The adrenaline would start pumping and he’d think of 147 new things he wanted to get in, and we would say no.”

Sounds like Gingrich needed one of them at his side before going on Meet the Press.

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast and Newsweek's Washington bureau chief, and writes the Spin Cycle blog. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.