The wisdom of … Newt Gingrich?

His warnings about the futility of Karl Rove's newest project prove that even a broken clock is right twice a day

Topics: Opening Shot, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, Steve King, Terry Branstad, Ron Paul, Greg Laughlin,

Newt Gingrich’s rhetorical tics are well-known – his fondness for the word “frankly,” his eagerness to frame even the most mundane development in dramatic world-historical terms, and his eagerness to accuse his enemies of practicing “machine” politics.

So it’s tempting to dismiss the broadside he leveled against Karl Rove and his Conservative Victory Project earlier this week as typical Gingrich grandstanding. And to a degree, that’s all it is. In a Human Events Op-Ed, the former House speaker and failed 2012 White House candidate accused Rove of employing “the system of Tammany Hall and the Chicago machine.” Anyone who’s been following Gingrich for a while is surely familiar with this line of attack; here, for example, he is in the summer of 1993 castigating Bill Clinton and “the Democratic machine” for forcing a tax hike bill through the House (a bill that ended up playing no small role in the balanced budgets of the late ‘90s – but that’s a story for another day).

Hyperbole aside, though, when it comes to what Rove is up to, Gingrich has a point. Rove’s project, which was announced a few weeks ago, is designed to steer big dollars from elite donors into Republican primaries for key Senate races with the aim of denying self-destructive candidates’ – think Todd Akin and Christine O’Donnell – nominations.

But there are some obvious problems with this. The first is that it’s easy to spot an obviously unelectable candidate like Akin after the fact, but if he had never shared his views about “legitimate rape” there’s a good chance he would have gone on and defeated Claire McCaskill in Missouri last fall. After all, her approval rating was jarringly low and the GOP-friendly state sided with Mitt Romney at the presidential level. Akin’s actual platform was really the same as that of most other Republican candidates running in high-profile races last year; the only difference is that he made an undisciplined utterance that alienated a wide swath of the electorate. Granted, there was some reason to suspect Akin might be prone to such outbursts; it’s why McCaskill quietly spent money trying to help him secure the GOP nomination. But in general, trying to weed out trouble candidates ahead of time is a very inexact science.

And that will make it easy for any candidate targeted by Rove to cry foul – and to rile up the purity-obsessed Republican base against Rove and his deep-pocketed band of party insiders. There is huge money to be made – by candidates, by book publishers, by merchandise peddlers – from small-dollar conservative consumers who are as enraged by their own party’s establishment as they are the Obama White House.

We’re already beginning to see how this will play out in the face of Rove’s new effort, with Iowa Rep. Steve King – a far-right ideologue with a penchant for inflammatory rhetoric, and exactly the kind of candidate the Conservative Victory Project is designed to thwart – railing against the GOP “powers that be” who are out to stop him. King is toying with running for the Senate seat being vacated by Tom Harkin, and his nomination would give Democrats their best chance of holding on to the seat. But King says he’s parlayed Rove’s threats into a surge in donations – enough that the state’s more moderate governor, Terry Branstad, has now called Rove’s effort a “mistake” and asked him to stop.

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This is the sort of phenomenon that Gingrich is warning against. And he knows firsthand the kind of backlash that too much meddling from the outside can produce in a GOP primary. Back in 1996, when he was House speaker, Gingrich helped persuade a Texas Democrat, Greg Laughlin, to switch parties. He then made it a priority to protect Laughlin in the GOP primary, hoping it would deliver a message to other conservative Democrats that it was safe to switch sides. But perceived heavy-handedness from Gingrich and other national Republican leaders played right into the hands of Laughlin’s chief rival, a quirky former congressman named Ron Paul. You know the rest of that story.

In his Op-Ed, Gingrich also noted that the GOP’s failures in 2012 weren’t just limited to Akin-type candidates. Well-credentialed Republican nominees who refrained from fringe campaign trail antics lost one toss-up race after another last fall – in Wisconsin, Virginia, Montana and several other states. Gingrich points the finger at the GOP’s nativist immigration tone. It’s a particularly sensitive topic for him, since he struck a surprisingly compassionate tone on it during his presidential campaign only to watch Mitt Romney outflank him on the right and use immigration demagoguery to help deflate the Gingrich bubble.

“The Romney campaign decision to savage first Governor Perry and then me on immigration destroyed any chance to build a Latino-Asian appeal,” Gingrich wrote.  “The Romney formula of self-deportation (which must have seemed clever when invented) led to a collapse of acceptability.”
Here Gingrich is getting closer to the reality of what went wrong for his party last year. Immigration, and the party’s general tone toward first-generation Americans, is a major problem for the GOP, but it’s hardly the only problem. The reality is that the party has utterly failed in the Obama years to rethink and update its core beliefs – to respond to the new economic and cultural realities that voters are confronting in their daily lives. As Ramesh Ponnuru wrote earlier this week, Republicans are still living off the policy prescriptions that Ronald Reagan first advanced more than 30 years ago. The world has changed dramatically since then, but the GOP’s message hasn’t. Worse yet, there is limited tolerance for debate within the party. Those who try to push the GOP away from its tired orthodoxies and toward a new, innovative platform risk professional and personal ostracism.

The occasional nomination of a Todd Akin or Christine O’Donnell or Sharron Angle is a problem for the GOP. But it’s really just a symptom of a much more serious malady: an environment on the right that demands and rewards an ideal of “purity” that has little appeal outside of the conservative movement. That’s what needs to change for Republicans to be more competitive. But Rove’s plan won’t do anything to bring that change about.

Steve Kornacki
Steve Kornacki writes about politics for Salon. Reach him by email at SKornacki@salon.com and follow him on Twitter @SteveKornacki

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