Gingrich’s First Stumble as 2012 GOP Frontrunner

Newt’s rise to GOP frontrunner was fueled by his decision to take the high road. Peter J. Boyer on how quickly Romney got him to make his first frontrunner mistake. Plus, read Newsweek’s cover story, Inside Newt’s Stunning Comeback.

Brendan Hoffman / Corbis

From the moment Newt Gingrich arrived at the front of the Republican presidential pack, the political-media class has been foreseeing his demise, expecting it to come in some spontaneous act of self-destruction. Such seemed the inevitable course for the man that Peggy Noonan, writing in the Wall Street Journal, described as “a human hand grenade.”

This week, Gingrich came perilously close to pulling the pin.

Provoked by Mitt Romney, who said that Gingrich should return the $1.6 million he was paid for consulting work by Freddie Mac, Gingrich could not resist retaliation. He said he’d be happy to heed Romney’s advice, provided Romney first “give back all the money he’s earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain”—the venture capital firm Romney once ran.

The counter-attack was a serious blunder, as Gingrich himself seemed to recognize, issuing a directive Tuesday to his supporters and staff reminding them (and himself) to follow Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment—“Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of any Fellow Republican.”

The barb directed at Romney was a mistake on many levels, the first of which was its violation of Gingrich’s own vow to “run a positive, solutions-based campaign,” as he reiterated on Tuesday. Avoiding criticism of his fellow candidates, directing his barbs instead to President Obama and the press, has been at the heart Gingrich’s comeback strategy. Over the course of the long debate season, this approach has allowed Gingrich to stand apart from (and above) his competitors, whose on-stage bickering made them seem “like seventh graders,” as Gingrich told Newsweek.

In his conversations with Newsweek/Daily Beast before last weekend’s debates, Gingrich congratulated himself on his own discipline. “You’ll notice, by the way, that I had the same, positive, substance-oriented model in June, July, and August that I have right now,” he said. “I didn’t shift to attack anybody—and that took real discipline.” Indeed, even as a television monitor in Gingrich’s outer office played Ron Paul’s biting anti-Gingrich attack ad, Gingrich kept his cool, even managing to praise Paul. “I think he has been more accurate about the destructiveness of the Fed”—the Federal Reserve Bank—“than any other single person,” Gingrich said.

By lashing out at Romney, Gingrich brought notice to the fact that he has not yet fully answered conservative criticism of his work for Freddie Mac, the housing giant considered a key factor in the financial collapse. This may be because Gingrich has no good answer—or, at least, had not yet formulated one when he spoke with Newsweek. Noting the good work of rural co-ops, which brought electricity and telephone service to areas that the free market underserved, Gingrich said, “I’m perfectly happy to say that there are times and places where GSEs”—Government Sponsored Enterprises, like Freddie Mac—“are good.”

Reminded that his paid advocacy was not for rural co-ops, but for Freddie Mac, and its role in the housing sector, Gingrich replied, “for a very long time, it was a very good system” that was ruined by liberal meddling.

But the biggest danger of Gingrich’s dig at Romney was that it risked angering conservatives. He didn’t go after Romney for his past embrace of man-caused climate change or some other Romney deviation from conservative orthodoxy, but for being an effective capitalist while running Bain.

As Charles Krauthhammer, the conservative Washington Post columnist observed on Fox News, “This kind of attack is what you’d expect from a socialist.”

Gingrich seemed to be again seeking the high road on Tuesday afternoon after his Iowa political director was caught disparaging Romney’s religion in comments to a focus group, referring to “the cult of Mormon.” The Gingrich campaign on Tuesday evening released a statement confirming that the aide had voluntarily left the organization. The staffer “made a comment to a focus group prior to becoming an employee,” a spokesman said, “that is inconsistent with Newt 2012′s pledge to run a positive and solutions orientated campaign.