Thursday, May 3, 2012

Newt’s figment IX: The end

IT HAD become a more or less standing feature of the ill-fated Newt Gingrich campaign for the presidency: the long drumroll, the throat clearing in advance of something important, something Of Great Moment coming from the mouth of the maximum leader in waiting. Gingrich, the presumptive conservative prefrontal cortex and former Speaker of the House, announced the start of his campaign this way last May, with the careful construction of anticipation, the preamble to the preamble … followed in short order by the news we knew was coming.

Gingrich did it again yesterday, for the last time in this campaign season. Speaking at the Hilton Hotel in Arlington, Va., at a “press conference to announce suspension of campaign,” Gingrich formally announced the end of his campaign after a week of waxy buildup. It was an endpoint as inevitable as his campaign was quixotic from the start. Faced with mounting campaign debts (something on the order of $4.3 million) and the crushing weight of delegate math against him, Gingrich took the honorable route: Out.

“Today, I'm suspending the campaign but suspending the campaign does not mean suspending citizenship. Callista and I are committed to be active citizens. We owe it to America,” he said.

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Not that he didn’t go out swinging. Gingrich did, of course, but swinging at President Obama, rather than his primary campaign nemesis, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

“I'm asked sometimes is Mitt Romney conservative enough. And my answer is simple: compared to Barack Obama? You know, this is not a choice between Mitt Romney and Ronald Reagan. This is a choice between Mitt Romney and the most radical leftist President in American history," Gingrich said.

That response tidily sidesteps the fact of the choice that primary voters made between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. The former Speaker went down after a withering barrage of negative advertising fueled by Romney’s ATM of a campaign operation, and consistently subpar finishes in a number of primary contests.

The timing of the end of Newt’s campaign comes with a grudging respect from analysts, polwatchers and the commentariat; most of them gave up Gingrich’s campaign for dead some time ago. His persistence was a testament to his own historical role in American politics (for good and ill). But it was also proof of the power of personal animosity. For months Gingrich made the battle between he and Romney a personal conflict. And that was much of the problem with much of the campaign.

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RIGHT FROM the jump, in the heady days of last spring, Newt Gingrich sought to position himself as the Republican with an intellectual difference. Never mind the ethical lapses and personal peccadilloes that trailed him like the animal leavings of a circus parade; Gingrich presented himself as the Man of Ideas: a prolific author of a range of books whose breadth of topics mirrored the expanse of the great man’s curiosity; a conservative intellect with an ability to distill vast concepts and arguments into lapidary rhetoric; a video producer, a deft theoretician, a political polymath of the highest order.

But the thinking of a fellow Southerner was never far away. “The past is never dead,” William Faulkner observed in “Requiem for a Nun.” “It isn’t even past.”

Gingrich’s earnest attempt at rebranding confronted the realities of his political and personal biographies: the tumult of his tenure as Speaker; the House Select Committee on Ethics investigation that led to Newt getting a House reprimand — one step below censure in punitive severity — and a $300,000 bill to reimburse the committee; the personal baggage of three marriages, one affair and two divorces; the imperious, mercurial personality; the quasi-racist rhetorical dogwhistles that found him railing generally against “Islamic triumphalism” or offering to go before the NAACP convention and say that black Americans should demand paychecks and not food stamps.

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The conservative drumbeat against Gingrich started late last year. Columnist George F. Will said on ABC that “Gingrich’s is an amazingly efficient candidacy, in that it embodies almost everything disagreeable about modern Washington. He’s the classic rental politician.”

On Dec. 2, in The Washington Post, Will said Newt’s temperament was “intellectual hubris distilled” and called him “the least conservative candidate,” a man of an “Olympian sense of exemption from standards and logic” who “embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive.”

On Dec. 15, the conservative National Review scored Gingrich for “his impulsiveness, his grandiosity, his weakness for half-baked (and not especially conservative) ideas” as House Speaker.

Curiously, other Republicans were all too willing to violate the so-called 11th Commandment, attributed to President Reagan: Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican. New York Rep. Peter T. King, who remembers Gingrich’s service in the House firsthand, has been one of Newt’s more vocal critics. “I’ve had any number of members of Congress come over to me and thank me for what I’m saying,” he told The New York Times. “They say, ‘This guy is going to kill us if he gets the nomination.’”

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KING NEEDN'T have worried. Despite impressive wins in primaries in South Carolina — the “first-in-the-South” event whose outcome has reliably determined the eventual winner of the nomination — and Georgia (his home state), Gingrich’s campaign continued to flail and sputter in the face of Romney’s burn-rate campaign tactics, and its relentless negative advertising.

Gingrich took the high road, shocked, shocked that Romney was saying mean things about him. In Hiawatha, Iowa, in December, Gingrich encouraged voters to demand that former Massachusetts governor Romney and others pull down the ads. “When you see one of these guys, ask them, 'How can you keep running this negative stuff?’”

On the “Morning Joe” program on MSNBC, documentarian and columnist Mike Barnicle said, in essence, get me a freakin’ violin.

“I just find it semi-amusing,” Barnicle said, “that the man in American politics who is arguably most responsible for the demonization of others in politics in the course of campaigns … now takes offense at negative advertising.”

What may have started as a noble campaign descended into Gingrich’s private war, a conflict that compromised Gingrich as a candidate and, once the delegate math made winning impossible, revealed the emptiness of the Newt 2012 campaign as a politically “transformative” venture.

The good of the party didn’t really matter; for Newt it was personal. Sadly, ruinously personal. Month after month, primary after primary, the voters responded, or, more accurately, failed to. And it all led — the news we knew was coming — to a press conference yesterday at the Arlington Hilton Hotel.

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Newt Gingrich ran for the presidency with his eyes on a prize only he could see. As the campaign ground on for nine days short of a year, that fact began to have less to do with vision than it had to do with ego. That shift of focus became politically combustible.

In December, Peggy Noonan, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, distilled the fears of many conservatives about Gingrich: “Those who know him fear — or hope — that he will be true to form in one respect: He will continue to lose to his No. 1 longtime foe, Newt Gingrich. He is a human hand grenade who walks around with his hand on the pin, saying, ‘Watch this!’”

After three hundred fifty-six days, we can come out now. Gingrich pulled the pin and threw the grenade. In spite of everything, or maybe because of everything, it turned out to be a dud.

Image credits: Gingrich top: NewsonABC via YouTube. Gingrich II: © 20123 Gage Skidmore.

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