No, Newt, your campaign's not just like Reagan's

The most epically disastrous presidential campaign rollout in history continues

Published May 17, 2011 9:54PM (EDT)

Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagan
Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagan

Sometime after he was told to drop out "before you make a bigger fool of yourself" and before we learned that he and his wife had racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt at Tiffany's, Newt Gingrich convened a conference call Tuesday afternoon in an effort to put a good face on what has been an epically disastrous presidential campaign rollout.

In particular, conservative activists and opinion-shapers are still fuming over the surprise criticism he leveled against Rep. Paul Ryan's Medicare plan on Sunday's "Meet the Press," but according to the Washington Examiner's Philip Klein, Gingrich insisted that his rocky start as a candidate is nothing remarkable, likening his campaign to ... Ronald Reagan's:

"Every once and awhile there's going to be a problem, and you gotta spend three or four days fixing it," he said. "If you go back and look at Ronald Reagan's record, the opening week of the campaign in Sept. 1980, they didn't have a very good week. And they had to go back and fix it. This happens occasionally. The trick is to relax, look at it, try to figure out what happened, and keep moving."

This is one of Newt's favorite devices -- the "fatuous historical analogy," as Jonathan Bernstein has labeled it. Here, we are supposed to believe that Gingrich is in roughly the same political situation that the patron saint of modern conservatism was when he embarked on his history-changing campaign three decades ago.

Why this is a completely absurd comparison should be fairly obvious, but for the record:

  1. September 1980 was the start of Reagan's general election campaign. He had already survived the GOP primaries (where his main rival ended up being George H.W. Bush) and been officially nominated at the Republican National Convention in July. The hard part was arguably over: As a general election candidate, Reagan was in a position to benefit from the country's profound desire -- spurred by soaring unemployment, inflation and interest rates, and an endless hostage ordeal in Iran -- to throw Jimmy Carter out of office. Yes, that first week after Labor Day -- the unofficial opening of the fall campaign season -- was rough for Reagan, thanks to a series of controversial statements involving the Ku Klux Klan, the Vietnam War and creationism. But given the favorable electoral climate, it was easy for him to recover. Gingrich, by contrast, is a long-shot (to put it politely) candidate for the Republican nomination -- one who already faces enormous skepticism (again to put it politely) about his fitness to lead the party into a general election. The three awful days that Gingrich is enduring now are just totally different -- and infinitely more devastating -- than the bad week Reagan had in September 1980.
  2. Reagan's actual nomination campaign rollout -- the phase that Newt is now in -- in November 1979 was a remarkably successful enterprise, devoid of the embarrassments and self-inflicted wounds that have marked Newt's formal entry into the race. Reagan formally announced his candidacy on Tuesday, Nov. 12, with a speech at the Hilton in New York -- a location chosen to demonstrate Reagan's commitment to competing in the Northeast, a region that had shunned him in his 1976 race and played a critical role in his loss to Gerald Ford. Over the next few days, Reagan trotted out an impressive series of endorsements from key GOP officials throughout the region, a demonstration of strength that had been missing in '76. Then, on the Saturday after declaring, he posted a strong victory at the Florida Republican Convention straw poll -- a result that sapped the momentum of his chief rival for Southern support, John Connally. When November ended, Reagan had solidified his position as the clear, overwhelming front-runner for the nomination. Newt, on the other hand, has in the last 48 hours been blasted by, among others, the Wall Street Journal, Charles Krauthammer, Rush Limbaugh and the Republican governor of one of the most important GOP primary states (South Carolina's Nikki Haley) -- this on top of the humiliating "You're an embarrassment" clip that's now making the rounds.

It is hard to find a presidential campaign rollout that has failed as spectacularly as Gingrich's.

A logical parallel might be Joe Biden's in the 2008 cycle; on the same day in January 2007 that Biden filed his paperwork with the Federal Election Commission, his infamous "clean, articulate" comments about Barack Obama appeared in a New York Observer story. Biden, like Gingrich now, was already a long shot for his party's nomination, and the ensuing uproar merely validated why this was the case. But in another way, Biden's botched rollout wasn't nearly as destructive; the reaction from most Democratic elites was that poor old Biden had made another gaffe -- not that he was a bad guy who needed to be condemned and isolated. The conservative establishment's response to Gingrich has been much more hostile.

We've long known that Newt Gingrich is not a serious presidential prospect. In the last few days, the most influential voices in his own party have made it clear that they feel the same way. The question is: Will Newt ever realize it himself?

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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