It feels like a long time ago now, but when this week started Newt Gingrich seemed to be riding high. He’d pulled into double-digit leads nationally and in three of the four key early states and was inching closer to Mitt Romney in New Hampshire. Plus, all of the headlines were about Romney’s casual offer of a $10,000 bet in a weekend GOP debate — a debate in which Gingrich’s performance earned largely favorable reviews.
In other words, the conditions made it just about impossible for Gingrich to continue suppressing his old, nasty self. And sure enough, when Romney opened the week by calling on him to return the money he received from Freddie Mac, Gingrich smirked and fired back with the kind of blunt, thin-skinned and personal riposte that was one of his trademarks when he was the House’s leading partisan warrior:
I love the way he and his consultants do these things. I would just say that if Governor Romney would like to give back all the money he’s earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain that I would be glad to then listen to him. And I would bet you $10 — not $10,000 — that he won’t take the offer.
Gingrich, of course, had spent the campaign resisting the urge to engage his opponents like this, standing back from the fray at debates, saving his fire for Democrats and the media, and trying to strike a more statesman-like pose. In a recent Newsweek interview, he said that the key to his success in debates was not showing up with the intent of stealing the show: “You can’t do that, because you will look like you’re trying to hit a home run. What you have to do is go in and look very stable, so you look competent. And you have to be very patient.” It was as if Gingrich, at 68, had matured enough to understand how unappealing, even to his fellow Republicans, many of his traits and tendencies could be.
Gingrich’s shot at Romney generated plenty of attention and didn’t necessarily seem like a bad move at the time. But the rest of the week produced a parade of discouraging developments for the former speaker: multiple polls in Iowa showing his lead vanishing there (with Romney even reclaiming first in one of them), a tightening national horse-race, a plea from the National Review to Republican voters not to vote for him (with more and more conservative organs joining what is now a pile-on), and new questions about whether Gingrich is at all equipped to handle what is now an anti-Newt onslaught by opponents in Iowa.
Then came last night’s debate, the last one before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. The consensus seems to be that Gingrich did OK — too defensive and insecure at times, but no singular gaffes — while Romney regained his footing from last weekend’s debacle. In other words, nothing that happened is likely to stop Gingrich’s polling slide. What may have been most interesting, though, was that Romney came equipped with a follow-up to Gingrich’s snide remarks about Romney killing jobs through his work at Bain. It was framed as an attack on Obama, but the message was clear:
“I think the president is going to … go after me and say, ‘You know, in businesses that you’ve invested in, they didn’t all succeed. Some failed. Some laid people off. And he’ll be absolutely right.’ But if you look at all the businesses we invested in, over a hundred different businesses, they added tens of thousands of jobs. In the real world that the president has not lived in — I actually think he doesn’t understand that: that not every business succeeds, that not every entrepreneur is lucky enough to do as well as the entrepreneurs that I described … I myself have had the chance of leading four different organizations. Each of those was highly successful, in part because of hard work, in part because of good luck.
“In the real world, some things don’t make it, and I believe I’ve learned from my successes and my failures. The president, I’ll look at and say: ‘Mr. President, how did you do when you were running General Motors as the president, took it over? Gee, you closed down factories. You closed down dealerships. And he’ll say: ‘Well, I did that to save the business.’ Same thing with us, Mr. President. We did our very best to make those businesses succeed. I’m pleased that they did, and I’ve learned the lessons of how the economy works. This president doesn’t know how the economy works. I believe to create jobs, it helps to have created jobs.”
When the debate was over, Gingrich did an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News. The subject of Romney’s Freddie Mac comment and Gingrich’s response came up, but this time the old Newt was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Gingrich confessed that Romney “got under my skin” and said, “He got that round. If you were scoring rounds in boxing, I’d give that round to Mitt.” He then reiterated his previous pledge to run a “relentlessly positive” campaign.
This is what a rotten week can do. On Monday morning, Gingrich was in a place he hadn’t been in well over a decade — on top of the political world — and it seemed to fill him with the confidence to just be himself once again. But by Thursday night, his standing had deteriorated and he was back to playing nice and being humble. It must be killing him.