Mitt Romney has taken his first shots at Newt Gingrich. At what does he aim? Newt's career choice, of all things.
Romney has spent some time in the past few days attempting to beat back the rising Gingrich by pointing out to Republican primary voters that the former Speaker of the House has spent the bulk of his professional life in politics. One wonders: Does he think so little of the Republican electorate as to assume they don't already know that?
Romney's attack on Gingrich for being a "career politician" is the kind of thing novice candidates say when they don't have the knowledge to attack incumbents on the issues. But Romney has policy knowledge. He's studied the issues diligently. There's something else he doesn't have, which he desperately seeks: conservative street cred. Gingrich has it, despite straying from the flock from time to time. Since Romney cannot out-conservative Gingrich, he is trying to out-outsider him, just as he did with Rick Perry.
In his interview with Brett Baier last Tuesday night, Romney dealt Gingrich the blow. "He's spent his last 30 or 40 years in Washington," Romney said. He even upped the ante vs. Gingrich. Perry, in Romney campaign press releases, is merely a "career politician." Gingrich, Romney says, is a "lifelong politician."
Gingrich, who is 68, spent 20 years in Congress (1979-1999). That's 12 fewer years than "Mr. Republican" Robert Taft spent in elected office and only four more years than Ronald Reagan did. Does Romney think being a "lifelong politician" is a universal negative, or only a negative when the politician is running against Romney?
Sure, Gingrich spent his out-years engaged in politics by writing and giving speeches. So did Reagan and Churchill. Gingrich also made a lot of money from his various businesses, including at least $1.6 million from Freddie Mac. Romney, though, isn't attacking Gingrich for taking money from the disgraced, government-sponsored mortgage giant or from motivating Republican crowds in Topeka and Tampa. He's attacking him for having a long political career -- the kind Romney tried, but failed, to have.
Romney first ran for U.S. Senate in 1994. Had he won, and continued to win, he'd be in his third term -- and 16th year in office -- right now. That's just four fewer years in office than "lifelong politician" Newt Gingrich.
As it happens, Romney spent only four years in office (as governor of Massachusetts), but it wasn't for a lack of trying. He's run three races and lost two of them. If Romney is going to tout political tenure as the demarcation between himself and Gingrich, then the difference is better phrased this way: In politics, Romney has been far less successful than Romney.
For a campaign that markets its candidate as the one best able to win the general election, bashing Gingrich's 20-year track record of winning elections seems an odd attack. Not only was Gingrich personally successful, but even his biggest critics credit him with orchestrating the 1994 Republican Revolution, which brought Republicans control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Drawing attention to Gingrich's time in office actually serves to remind Republican primary voters that Gingrich led Republicans to victory on a national level, which undercuts Romney's claim to be the only candidate capable of doing that again.
While Romney tries to pin the Outsider label on his lapel, primary voters are surely noticing that the party establishment has coalesced around him, not Gingrich. The Washington establishment doesn't much care for Gingrich, while the base is rather fond of him. Romney hopes to eat into that support by making primary voters think of Gingrich as the establishment candidate and Romney as the rebellious outsider who will upend the status quo. That's unlikely to happen for one, simple reason. It's absurd.