Who is the Tea Party candidate for president?
Michele Bachmann wants to be—but despite all her begging, she isn’t. Ron Paul probably should be, but the polls don’t bear it out. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is supposed to be Mitt Romney’s beard and tri-cornered hat in this particular vicinity, but the folks aren’t buying it. Litmus tests suggested that Rick Perry would be the perfect Tea Party candidate—until he started opening his mouth on stage.
Which leaves Newton Leroy Gingrich—the unlikeliest Tea Party candidate. Washington insider and defiant iconoclast, a rotund blast from the Clinton-era past running as the candidate of radical change. The Tea Party Patriots’ straw poll this week saw Newt winning the endorsement of the Tea Party rank and file—and it’s not a non sequitur. But there’s a method behind the madness.
Namely, Newt Gingrich was present at the creation. He earned his affection from the Tea Party despite all the subsequent contradictory details about his high-yield gigs as a historian for archvillain Freddie Mac. In the early days of 2009, when many Republicans were feeling down on their luck and confused about what the future held in an Obama era, Newt understood the potential of the Tea Party and lent his voice to their efforts with a simple piece of advice: attack.
Think back to the Tax Day Tea Parties of 2009. It was April 15th and all this was a wild gamble for a party unaccustomed to public protest. He was at the New York City rally held in City Hall Park, blocking off both sides of Broadway, and the only major figure in the conservative movement to dedicate his time and prestige to the new movement. He received a hero’s welcome, flanked by the devoted Callista, speaking as a self-styled historian, reminding the faithful about how the 1773 Tea Party was only a start, while offering a well-timed dig at the New York Times editorial board as “bigoted.”
It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Newt has always excelled at team building. He was at his best in the road to 1994, recruiting candidates and rallying a populist movement around conservative reform causes.
Newt’s group, AmericanSolutions.com, was among the top-tier groupssupporting the early Tea Party rallies in every respect, chief among which was the value of his conservative celebrity and advocacy, offered on Fox News in the days leading up to those initial Tax Day 2009 rallies. In an tub-thumping interview with Greta Van Susteren, he said “My challenge to every member of the House and Senate is have the courage to go to the tea party in your state or district….My prediction is that there will be over 300,000 Americans and I think it’s the beginning of a huge movement of fundamental reform…in all the places where the lobbyists, politicians and the bureaucrats have been running over their citizens.”
This is the remade, refashioned Newt, scourge of the K-Street he had come to know so well, reincarnated as an unrepentant outsider after exile during the George W. Bush years, victim of bad blood that extends back to his revolt against 41during the 1990 debt deal, a violation of conduct the Kennebunkport crowd has never forgotten.
Which left Newt the perfect, high-name-ID, conservative, activist celebrity to rally around a cause that initially framed itself as a principled reaction to both the latest Bush administration overspending (TARP, etc.) and the incipient Obama budgets.
“Gingrich supported the Tea Party movement in its earliest days and helped it achieve critical mass,” attests Owen Brennan, a writer and producer who has covered the Tea Party movement since its beginning. “Tea Party activists are genuinely suspicious of his record and some of his ideas. But he’s also let them know they will have a seat at the table in a Gingrichadministration. Those same activists know they’ll have no such position in a Romney administration.”
After all, consider the alternatives. The sober Republican establishment is rallying around Mitt Romney’s candidacy with some reluctance, almost solely in recent weeks because of the alternatives: Newt Gingrich or (gasp!) Ron Paul.
Given the fact that the Tea Party propelled the GOP back into power in the 2010 elections, it is no small irony that the Republican Party seems eager to nominate a Massachusetts governor who pioneered the same individual mandate (yes, once backed by the Heritage Foundation and Newt as an alternative to Hillary-Care) that formed the basis for President Obama’s signature healthcare legislation.
Michele Bachmann’s much self-ballyhooed status as the leader of the congressional Tea Party caucus always said more about her ambition than the respect she engendered among her peers.
Nikki Haley’s Romney endorsement was spun as evidence of his growing Tea Party support, but 75 percent of GOP primary voters still seem determined to back an alternative, anti-establishment candidate.
The Tea Party vote is still up for grabs. This once-mighty insurgent force finds its strength diluted in the fractured Republican field. Newt’s numbers seem to be sagging in the face of a multi-million-dollar onslaught of negative ads in early states, most them courtesy of the resurgent Ron Paul and Super-PACs aligned with Mitt Romney.
But recent history suggests that no one should doubt the impact of an aligned Tea Party in the GOP primaries—and Newt Gingrich can claim he was with them at their creation while credibly offering them a seat at the table in his White House, for better or worse.