Newt Gingrich Targets Romney, Returns to Cage-Fighting Roots

We knew the above-the-fray act was too good to be true. Michelle Cottle on Gingrich’s return to his roots as a cage-fighting thug—and why Romney should watch out.

Mike Segar / Reuters

Newt Gingrich is back, baby!

Not the mealy-mouthed, sunshine-spewing, high-minded Newt on display during the final weeks of 2011, but the vengeful, petulant, thin-skinned junkyard dog so many of us recall from the mid-90s.

As Gingrich watched his dreams of Iowa victory dissolve faster than Kim Kardashian’s marriage, he wasted no time identifying the problem—namely, Mitt Romney—and he has clearly vowed, going forward, to make the Massachusetts governor’s life a living hell.

You could see the storm brewing a couple of days out from Tuesday’s vote. At a campaign event Sunday, Gingrich bemoaned having been “Romney-boated,” equating the $3.5 million in ads run against him by a pro-Romney super PAC to the 2004 “swift-boating” of John Kerry by the pro-Bush Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. In a Monday sit down with Fox News’s Sean Hannity (among other places), Gingrich talked at length about how he planned to start drawing sharp contrasts between himself and Romney, prompting Hannity to observe that “the gloves are off.” By caucus morning, the speaker was angry enough to call Romney a “liar” on CBS's morning show, then spend the rest of the day taking swipes at the governor both on the trail and on the air. Come Wednesday, Team Gingrich had a full-page ad in the New Hampshire Union Leader, giving voters a point-by-point comparison between its guy (“Bold Reagan Conservative”) and the other guy (“Timid Massachusetts Moderate”). As Gingrich spokesman turned pro-Gingrich super PAC spokesman Rick Tyler has allowed, “there’s definitely a shift afoot” in strategy.

Translation: Fire up the blowtorch, Callista. Newt’s about to get medieval on Mitt’s ass.

All I can say is, it’s about damn time.

Among the downsides of its outsized political influence, Iowa likes to promote the notion that what voters want from candidates is Midwestern niceness. Cut the partisan bickering, and let’s all search for common ground. Whether you buy this line or not, the very idea leads to the unnatural, unseemly charade of caucus combatants pretending that they are not, in fact, arrogant, competitive narcissists who’d gladly sell their grandmas into prostitution for a few poll points, but are instead selfless patriots enduring the hardships of a White House race because—all together now!—they just love this country so much.

It was particularly jarring to watch Gingrich try to walk the high road. Even as the former Speaker babbled on about how he planned to stay positive and focus on ideas and not wallow in the gross negativity other camps were indulging, you could sense the annoyance bubbling behind that grandfatherly smile. Now and again, Gingrich would smilingly slip the shiv between Romney’s ribs, but you could tell he was just itching to drop the grin altogether and gut the governor from neck to navel. Metaphorically, of course.

Candidate Gingrich has been selling himself as the above-the-fray Ideas Guy in this race, but at heart he is, was, and always will be a political cage fighter. Recall if you will how the 1994 Revolution came about. No question, it took vision for Gingrich to assemble a list of agenda items, slap a clever name on it, and sell it to the electorate. But his more enduring contribution, the thing for which he is best remembered around the Beltway, was a giddy embrace of extreme partisanship and the politics of personal destruction. From Speaker Jim Wright to President Bill Clinton, Gingrich took demonization of the opposition to new heights. One classic Newt maneuver political types love to reminisce about is when, in the run up to the 1994 elections, the then-aspiring speaker circulated a pamphlet, published by his GOPAC, urging Republican congressional candidates to “define” Dems in terms such as “decadent,” “permissive,” “pathetic,” “traitors, “shallow,” and “sick.” Ah, fun times.

Newt the Big Thinker and Newt the Barbarian—they are two sides of the same coin, fundamental, inextricable parts of the man’s very being. What madness, then, for the ex-speaker to hamstring himself by pledging not to go negative. That’s like asking Joe Biden not to run off at the mouth. Or John Boehner not to weep like a little girl. Or Rick Santorum not to wear those terrifying sweater vests. There are some pieces of themselves that politicians simply cannot disavow.

Not only will this unchaining be good for Newt, it will be good for the primary as a whole. The Republican electorate clearly has concerns about Romney, but up to now none of his competitors have been willing to launch the full-frontal assault necessary to test his mettle. (The closest anyone came was Gingrich in last month’s Iowa debate—and, let’s face it, Mitt seemed to melt a little under even that moderate heat.) But it looks like all that is about to change. Good-bye, Little Newtie Sunshine. Hello, Newtinator.

We’ve been expecting you.