He's modeling the very behavior he's begging Republicans to reject
There are many reasons why Newt Gingrich’s poll numbers collapsed almost as soon as he surged to the front of the GOP pack, not the least of which is the considerable bad will that that exists toward him among influential Republicans who remember his tenure as House speaker. As he campaigned in South Carolina on Wednesday, Gingrich demonstrated another one: the fact that he actually embodies two of the traits that he’s begging Republican voters to rebel against.
This happened when he was confronted by a voter who asked him to “lay off the corporatist versus the free market” rhetoric that he’s been aiming at Mitt Romney, and Gingrich replied that “I agree with you.”
“It’s an impossible theme to talk about with Obama in the background,” he explained. “Obama just makes it impossible to talk rationally in that area because he is so deeply into class warfare that automatically you get an echo effect which, as a Reagan Republican it frankly never occurred to me until it happened. So I agree with you entirely.”
Not surprisingly, this was promptly reported as an admission by the GOP candidate that he’d erred in painting Romney as a corporate villain and that he was ready to back off his attacks on his opponent’s venture capital past. That Gingrich might feel this way was certainly understandable; so far, his Romney assault has mainly enraged conservative opinion-leaders, who have used their platforms to brand the former House speaker an unprincipled opportunist and to accuse him of aiding Barack Obama and the Occupy Wall Street movement. But shortly thereafter, his campaign put out a statement insisting there’d been no backtracking whatsoever:
This issue at hand is neither about Bain Capital, private equity firms, nor about capitalism. It is about Mitt Romney’s judgment and character. It was Governor Romney’s decision to base his candidacy, in large part, on his background as a portfolio manager. Thus, it is entirely legitimate to ask questions about whether he is accurately presenting how he conducted himself during that career.
So it looks like Gingrich — and, perhaps more important, the well-endowed Super PAC that’s aligned with him — will not be letting up on Romney’s Bain Capital years after all. But that doesn’t necessarily mean this was all simple misunderstanding, because it’s actually the second time Gingrich has publicly waffled on the wisdom of his Romney attacks.
The first instance came in mid-December, when Gingrich expressed regret to Sean Hannity over his claim that Romney had made his money by “bankrupting companies and laying off employees” and vowed to run a “relentlessly positive” campaign from that point forward. Weeks later, though, after his poll numbers had crashed and Romney had reasserted himself as the GOP favorite, Gingrich went back on this pledge and again made Bain an issue.
This is why it was so easy to believe that he was changing course yet again when he opened his mouth on Wednesday. This campaign, and his entire political career for that matter, is filled with exhibitions of Gingrich’s comical knack for switching back and forth between sweeping, absolute claims and commitments while expressing contempt for anyone who suggests he’s being inconsistent.
The classic example involves the multiple highly specific and confident positions he took on Libya — demanding , for instance, that President Obama establish a no-fly zone, then calling intervention a mistake when one actually was set up. There was also his journey from calling Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan a bad idea and “right-wing social engineering” to claiming that anyone who quoted him saying so was guilty of lying. It’s the story of his career: At the height of the 1998 midterm campaign, he railed against the media for focusing obsessively on the Monica Lewinsky scandal — this after he’d dramatically vowed earlier in the year to raise the subject himself whenever he got the chance.
Gingrich’s last-ditch effort in South Carolina depends on exploiting two of Romney’s chief intraparty vulnerabilities: his penchant for opportunistic flip-flops and his history of ideological apostasies. In Gingrich’s telling, he’s a “Reagan conservative” who represents the party base’s last chance to avoid nominating a “timid Massachusetts moderate.” But he can’t seem to keep himself from engaging in over-the-top flip-floppery of his own, a reality that his Wednesday comments are a reminder of. And the subject he’s vacillating on — whether to attack Romney over Bain — actually gives Romney an opportunity to position himself to Gingrich’s right.
In other words, Gingrich is now running in South Carolina as pretty much the exact candidate he came to the state to beat.
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki More Steve Kornacki.
More Related Stories
- Slave descendants seek equal rights from Cherokee Nation
- Peace Corps to allow gay couples to volunteer together
- Is abortion about to doom Republicans again?
- Anti-voter-fraud Tea Party group sues the IRS
- The Bachmann-inspired romance novel
- Nate Silver: Why the scandals aren't hurting Obama
- How to oust Michele Bachmann from Congress
- Rand Paul: Congress should apologize to Apple, not the other way around
- Who is Toronto Mayor Rob Ford?
- Colorado judge rules Abercrombie parent company violates Disabilities Act
- When America became a third-world country
- Inhofe and Coburn: Red state hypocrites
- It's Whitewater all over again
- Teen activist to meet with Abercrombie CEO
- Anyone regret slashing National Weather Service budget now?
- Oklahoma senator: Tornado aid "totally different" from Sandy aid
- Aloof, shifty Obama: Nixon times ten thousand!
- Obama: Moore "needs to get everything it needs right away"
- California Tea Party group files first IRS lawsuit
- Still no polling backlash for Obama
- Oklahoma senator wants to offset tornado aid with other cuts
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11
Alex Pareene surveys the burgeoning and bloated world of political news and opinion and explains the day's most essential story in Opening Shot, posted by 8:30 a.m. each weekday. Bookmark this page; follow @pareene on Twitter.