Presswatch

Strange Newt Respect

By From the February 2012 issue

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Because my deadline for this column is two weeks before the Iowa caucuses, I can only guess at the shape of the Republican presidential race by the time you read it. As I write, it appears Newt Gingrich may be on his way down after emerging as the most serious challenge so far to Mitt Romney's seemingly inevitable march to the GOP nomination. Gingrich's rise was in large part a result of his skillful use of the media. It should serve as a cautionary tale to conservatives that they may be more susceptible than they realize to mainstream media myth-making.

This past year's primary campaign, perhaps more than any other, has centered on a seemingly endless series of debates. They began in May 2011, eight months before the first convention delegates would be chosen. While Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain were flaming out, and Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry failing ever to catch fire, Gingrich burned steadily and brilliantly. As the other candidates bickered, he kept the focus on President Obama.

And he attacked the media, accusing debate moderators of sowing intraparty conflict by posing gotcha questions. When Fox's Chris Wallace asked him in August about mass resignations from his campaign a few months earlier, Gingrich answered: "I think that there's too much attention paid by the press corps to the campaign minutiae and not enough paid by the press corps to the basic ideas that distinguish us from Barack Obama." The audience cheered. In a November CBS debate, as his poll numbers were beginning their rise, Gingrich lectured a smugly grinning Scott Pelley on the law of war, a subject the candidate left no doubt he understood better than the questioner.

Gingrich's rise—like Bachmann's, Cain's, and (before he proved himself a debating dud) Perry's—was in part a result of Republican voters' reluctance to get behind Romney. Many saw the former Massachusetts governor as an unreliable conservative, and with good reason. But Gingrich had been ideologically inconstant, too. Like Romney, he had at times advocated laws forcing individuals to buy medical insurance—although unlike Romney, he had not been in a position to enact them. Like Romney, he had paid obeisance to the fraudulent scientific consensus on global warming—although Romney never did so while sitting in a love seat next to Nancy Pelosi, as Gingrich did in a 2008 ad sponsored by Al Gore.

So how did Gingrich become the "conservative" candidate of choice? An outsider, liberal Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein, had perhaps the best explanation. Klein cited some history from Romney's 2002 campaign for governor:

In early-November, [the Post's] Peter Wallsten and Juliet Eilperin went back to the left-leaning constituencies that every politician in Massachusetts needs to appeal to and asked about the pitch Romney made when he was running for governor. According to individuals who were in those meetings, Romney didn't just say that he supported choice [legal abortion] and environmental protection. He said that supporting him was a strategic decision for those groups.

"You need someone like me in Washington," he reportedly told the advocates. The GOP had swung too far right, and he would be "a good voice in the party" for left-leaning groups. His support for their agenda would mean more than the support of another Democrat. His would be "widely written about."

As Klein sums it up: "Whatever Gingrich's heterodoxies, conservatives never worry that he's not, on some fundamental level, a committed member of their tribe." The difference between Gingrich and Romney is that the former's identity as a conservative has never been in doubt.

For that, Gingrich owes thanks to the liberal media. During his speakership, journalists reliably portrayed him as a right-wing radical, in contrast to the moderate President Clinton. That stereotype was an exaggeration. True, Gingrich successfully pushed several conservative policies—welfare reform, balanced budgets, a cut in the capital gains tax—but Clinton signed off on all of them. When the speaker did take a confrontational stance, Clinton emerged victorious, as in the budget showdowns of 1995-96 and the 1998 impeachment. The latter led to Gingrich's resignation.

Gingrich was never really the "radical" the media made him out to be. Instead, as a May 2011 Wall Street Journal editorial put it, through his career he has shown an "odd combination of partisan, divisive rhetoric and poll-driven policy timidity." That observation was occasioned by a Meet the Press interview in which the former speaker's characterized Representative Paul Ryan's Medicare reform plan as "right-wing social engineering."

He almost managed to live that down with his strong debate performances during the summer and fall. Then came another Sunday morning disaster—this time on CBS's Face the Nation, on December 18. Gingrich reiterated a previously expressed view that Congress should subpoena federal judges and compel them to explain "radical" rulings. He added the flourish that if the jurists refuse, "you'd instruct the Justice Department to send a U.S. marshal" to arrest the judge.

Conservatives had rightly criticized President Obama for disrespecting the separation of powers when, during his 2010 State of the Union Address, he denounced the high court for ruling in favor of free speech in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. To be sure, the words of a sitting president carry more weight than those of an aspiring one, but Gingrich's comment was far more over the top than Obama's had been. And can it really have failed to occur to him that a Democratic Congress could just as easily employ such a tactic against conservative judges?

Yet at the same time, Gingrich's idea reflected that odd timidity. After all, the separation of powers also means that the president has no authority to order up congressional hearings. One wishes host Bob Schieffer had thought to ask why there were no such hearings during the four years when Gingrich ran the House.

One of the most intriguing critiques of the Gingrich candidacy had come a week earlier from New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. He argued that Gingrich's rise had resulted from "a desperate desire to somehow beat Barack Obama at his own game, and to explode what conservatives consider the great fantasy of the 2008 campaign—the conceit that Obama possessed an unmatched brilliance and an unprecedented eloquence." That, Douthat maintained, was a mistake:

It isn't 2008 anymore, and conservatives don't actually need to explode the fantasy of Obama's eloquence and omnicompetence. The harsh reality of governing has already done that for them. Nobody awaits the president's speeches with panting anticipation these days, or expects him to slay his opponents with the power of his intellect. Obamamania peaked with the inauguration, and it's been ebbing ever since.

Given the eagerness of New York Times liberals to find ways of charging conservatives with racism, it took some courage for a New York Times conservative to disparage the intellect of the first black president. But if Douthat was right, hardly anyone still believed the media myth that Obama was brilliant. Republican voters, however, continued to be taken in by it, at least to the extent of thinking that the country needed proof it was bunk.

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About the Author

James Taranto, a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, writes the Best of the Web Today column for OpinionJournal.com.