The primary campaign nastiness between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich is exhausting Republican loyalists. What in Iowa was a feisty contest between the haughty Mr. Romney and the operatic Mr. Gingrich turned hollow in New Hampshire and harsh in South Carolina. By the close of the Florida scramble, with the Herman Cain Express back from the repair yard to hitch onto the Newt baggage car, what remains of the Republican dialogue does not appear likely to be of much worth for the fall campaign.
The solution to the puzzle may be to admit that the GOP has forfeited 2012 before the general election even starts. How did this happen so suddenly?
“That’s the great mystery of 2012,” a senior Republican journalist told me while watching the brouhaha in Florida. “We have the weakest incumbent president in 32 years, running on the weakest record in 32 years… and who’s taking the stage in South Carolina and Florida? It has to be the weakest field I can remember. Each of these candidates has in his character, in his history, in his idea set—never mind disqualifying—a guarantee for self-destruction. If Newt is the candidate, he’ll lose badly. If Mitt is the candidate, he’ll lose slightly less badly … So what you have is an almost complete guarantee that if these are the candidates, Barack Obama will be reelected.”
I asked another senior GOP professional with decades of experience measuring party intrigue; he pointed to the negative campaigning as the telltale cause. “Negative advertising, why does it exist? It exists because it’s been proven to work. So Gingrich went negative on Romney on the Bain attacks and brought Romney down in South Carolina. The Romney campaign decided they’ve got to fire back in kind, calling Gingrich an influence peddler and a guy with ethics problems. The result is to create a cumulative effect of slime and dirt and muck attached not only to the two candidates but also to the party itself, as a party that fundamentally lacks seriousness about what’s centrally on people’s minds, which is the state of the economy—especially among independent voters, who keep rising; apparently they’re up to 40 percent of the electorate. This is off-putting. You know, Republicans may say we’re having an internal struggle, Newt represents something we believe in and so forth … Still, they’re running the risk of damaging the Republican brand.”
When asked how the GOP fell into this slough of despond, the observer concluded, “This is a function of not having the A team in the campaign. We’ve got the B team.”
The traditional rationalization about intraparty smears is that it’s too early to dismiss the GOP’s chances; that it’s healthy for the party to battle with mud-flinging; that all this will be forgiven in the heat of August when the party embraces the man who would be king. However, the recklessness of Gingrich’s assault on Romney as Long John Silver, and the ruthlessness of the party’s Romney chorus screeching at Gingrich as the Undead, all this does reinforce doubts already in place with the independent voters, as well as creating a YouTube bonanza of clips for the Obama re-elect ops in Chicago.
“I think Romney will be the nominee,” a veteran Democratic campaign observer told me about the feud with Gingrich. “But he has unplumbed weaknesses. He’s such a terrible candidate. When’s he’s competent, he’s memorizing the talking points and delivering them with a mechanical energy. There’s no mind at work, no evidence that he understands how to do this. You don’t see a brain working, do you?” I agreed that Romney did seem unusually flabby on the stage. “That won’t matter in the end,” the Democratic observer judged. “Mormonism is a great problem. When he said the other night that his father was born in Mexico, do you know why? Because the Mormons had gone there to escape persecution for polygamy.”
I asked about Gingrich, whom stout stalwarts are rallying to as if he were Bonnie Prince Charlie in the ’45. I mentioned that in conversation with a savvy Florida Republican I had learned that evangelical pastors from the Panhandle were siding with Gingrich regardless of how Romney performed.
“That makes sense,” the Democratic observer returned. “There is the sinner who confesses his sin, and it’s perfect for them. They can’t support Romney. Because of the Mormonism. I find Gingrich a weird combination of the effective and highly ineffective. He’s lazy and undisciplined. He doesn’t know how to do this, either. He has character flaws. If you were at all disciplined, you’d put yourself through practice sessions. He hasn’t figured out even basic things. He went into the debates thinking that Romney’s strong points are electability and economic management, so I’m going to challenge these things. That’s it. In 1984, the first national piece about him, he talked to us about colonies on the moon. He hasn’t moved in 30 years.”
The logic of the Romney-Gingrich battle is what a pundit calls the Mutually Assured Destruction of each other’s reputation, and it will continue well into the spring. Romney is like the sheriff of Nottingham: all castle, no conviction; which makes Newt Gingrich the earthy Friar Tuck. The question is, where is the hero, Robin Hood?
“There comes a point in the party’s desperation and anxiety,” the senior Republican observer told me, “that it has just got to be weighing on some of these individuals who didn’t get in.” We were discussing the could-have-been GOP A team—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, even telegenic puppies Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. “I would not be shocked if one of them woke up and said, ‘I’ve got to do it.’ Still, you’ll arrive in June, with one or the other, most probably Romney, with a winning number of delegates, and that’s it. Unless they get off this negative cycle and start offering voters a positive view of what their party represents, they’ve run the risk of terminating this thing earlier than it needs to.
I asked a veteran Republican member of Congress what this year looked like from Capitol Hill following the President’s workman-like State Of The Union address. “A year from now, the president will make the same speech, and the House leaders will still think what they’re doing matters, and the Senate will still be where everything goes to die. No change except I’ll say, ‘Mitt who?’”
The Democratic senior was wearily ironic: “The Democrats will be greatly relieved. Getting Obama reelected is a great burden, and they can get over it. They can relax and go back to their own careers and start the next big thing, the Andrew Cuomo boom, you know, or whatever.”