Gingrich: Man Who Created Gridlock

December 6th, 2011

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This piece was originally published by Politico.

“I did not think I lived a good enough life to see Newt Gingrich as the Republican nominee,” Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said last week when he announced his retirement. That more or less sums up the view of most Democrats.

Gingrich has more baggage than United Airlines. Are Republicans really crazy enough to nominate this presumably washed-up, ethically compromised, divisive, reckless and undisciplined figure for president?

Apparently they are.

The White House must be gleeful. Democratic campaign committees have been running attack ads against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. “They want to throw the primary process to anybody but me,” Romney told supporters at a Miami rally.

Polls over the past month show President Barack Obama and Romney in a dead heat, while Obama beats Gingrich every time. The prospect of Gingrich becoming president is staggering.

What’s behind the Gingrich surge?

For one thing, Gingrich is smart. So is Romney. That’s why the two men have risen to the top of the pack. Republicans can imagine either of them debating Obama without embarrassment. A debate between Obama and Texas Gov. Rick Perry or Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) would be cringe-inducing.

The Gingrich surge is being driven by two Republican constituencies: seniors and tea party supporters. Gingrich was the first choice of 24 percent of Republicans in the November CNN poll. Among tea party supporters, that figure rose to 31 percent. Among seniors, 45 percent.

For older Republicans, Gingrich is a familiar figure. In fact, he’s a brand. They’ve bought his books, seen his tapes, heard his lectures. They know his foibles — his three marriages, his ethics charges, his history of influence peddling — and they’ve gotten past them.

They remember Gingrich as the leader who brought them to the promised land – a majority in the House – after 40 years in the wilderness. They remember Gingrich’s “Contract with America” as the magic formula that brought them to power in 1994 — even though most voters who gave the GOP the majority had never heard of any contract.

But what’s with tea party supporters? Don’t they know that Gingrich, like Romney, has supported unspeakably moderate positions in the past — like climate change and a health care mandate and immigration reform? Tea party activists are supposed to hate Washington and career politicians and political insiders. Gingrich spent 20 years in the House, four as speaker. Since leaving Congress, he has profited handsomely on his Washington connections. You can’t get much more inside Washington than that.

What tea party supporters see in Gingrich is self-confidence. He speaks in certainties. “I have enormous personal ambition,” he has said. “I want to shift the entire planet. And I’m doing it. I am now a famous person. I represent real power.”

Gingrich takes credit for defeating communism and creating 11 million jobs in the 1990s — as speaker. He has no doubt about anything he believes, even if it’s very different from what he believed a few years ago. As for people he disagrees with, they’re not just wrong. They’re “stupid,” and “grotesque” and “disgusting.”

Most people see that as arrogance. But the tea party sees it as heroic defiance. Gingrich believes that, as president, he could subdue Congress and even the federal courts. He claims he would have the right to fire judges he disagrees with and limit the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. “We could begin to break up the gridlock very rapidly if I were president,” Gingrich pronounced at a rally last week.

The truth is, Gingrich is the man who created gridlock. “He got to Congress in ‘78,” Frank explained, “and said, ‘We Republicans are not going to be able to take over unless we demonize the Democrats.’” Gingrich demanded that Republicans stop behaving like a docile minority and instead, denounce the long-ruling Democrats as corrupt and obstruct everything they were trying to do. Even to the point of shutting down the federal government. Twice.

Gingrich is the ultimate oxymoron: the anti-Washington insider. He told Radio Iowa, “The degree to which I challenge the establishment … makes me probably the most experienced outsider in modern times.” An experienced outsider?

The tea party is buying it. Because they, too, are certain about everything they believe. Notice what’s happened since the tea party gained control of the GOP in 2010. Gridlock has gotten worse. Tea party activists do not believe in compromise, which is the only way Washington works. They regard compromise as selling out.

The tea party feasts on gridlock. That’s why Gingrich is their hero. So what if gridlock stops government from getting anything done? They don’t believe government should do anything.

Obama is a reasonable and cautious man. He tries to be bipartisan, to the point that Democrats worry he may sell them out. Every time Obama negotiates with Republicans, he gets rolled. Republicans — and many Democrats — see Obama as weak and indecisive. Look how he postponed until after the election a decision about a pipeline that would carry potentially hazardous Canadian oil across the American Midwest. Weak and indecisive Gingrich is not. Which makes him the perfect foil for Obama.

Could Gingrich actually get elected president? Under the right circumstances — say, another recession — no one can be labeled unelectable. But Gingrich would be a very difficult candidate to elect.

Ever hear the story of the company that tried to market a new dog food? The company did careful product and market research. The packaging was impeccable. The price was competitive. The advertising campaign was brilliant. But the product didn’t sell.

The CEO gathered all his executives and challenged them to come up with an explanation. “What’s wrong with our product?” he demanded. After an uncomfortable silence, one young executive ventured an answer: “The dogs don’t like it.”

Gingrich’s problem is that the voters don’t like him. In 35 polls taken over the past 17 years, Americans expressed a negative impression of Gingrich 32 times. Republicans know that. In that same CNN poll where Gingrich was the top choice of Republicans, he was rated fourth most likeable —after Romney, Herman Cain and Perry. And far less likely than Romney to beat Obama.

Romney has his own problem. He looks and talks as if he just walked out of Wall Street boardroom, at a time when Americans are talking about growing inequality.

It looks like the Republican race is coming down to a choice between two problematical contenders. Romney is Mr. 1 Percent. Gingrich is Mr. Gridlock.

Bill Schneider is the Omer L. and Nancy Hirst professor of public policy at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way.

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Most people see that as arrogance. But the tea party sees it as heroic defiance. Gingrich believes that, as president, he could subdue Congress and even the federal courts. He claims he would have the right to fire judges he disagrees with and limit the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. “We could begin to break up the gridlock very rapidly if I were president,” Gingrich pronounced at a rally last week.

The truth is, Gingrich is the man who created gridlock. “He got to Congress in ‘78,” Frank explained, “and said, ‘We Republicans are not going to be able to take over unless we demonize the Democrats.’” Gingrich demanded that Republicans stop behaving like a docile minority and instead, denounce the long-ruling Democrats as corrupt and obstruct everything they were trying to do. Even to the point of shutting down the federal government. Twice.

Gingrich is the ultimate oxymoron: the anti-Washington insider. He told Radio Iowa, “The degree to which I challenge the establishment … makes me probably the most experienced outsider in modern times.” An experienced outsider?

The tea party is buying it. Because they, too, are certain about everything they believe. Notice what’s happened since the tea party gained control of the GOP in 2010. Gridlock has gotten worse. Tea party activists do not believe in compromise, which is the only way Washington works. They regard compromise as selling out.

The tea party feasts on gridlock. That’s why Gingrich is their hero. So what if gridlock stops government from getting anything done? They don’t believe government should do anything.

Obama is a reasonable and cautious man. He tries to be bipartisan, to the point that Democrats worry he may sell them out. Every time Obama negotiates with Republicans, he gets rolled. Republicans — and many Democrats — see Obama as weak and indecisive. Look how he postponed until after the election a decision about a pipeline that would carry potentially hazardous Canadian oil across the American Midwest. Weak and indecisive Gingrich is not. Which makes him the perfect foil for Obama.

Could Gingrich actually get elected president? Under the right circumstances — say, another recession — no one can be labeled unelectable. But Gingrich would be a very difficult candidate to elect.

Ever hear the story of the company that tried to market a new dog food? The company did careful product and market research. The packaging was impeccable. The price was competitive. The advertising campaign was brilliant. But the product didn’t sell.

The CEO gathered all his executives and challenged them to come up with an explanation. “What’s wrong with our product?” he demanded. After an uncomfortable silence, one young executive ventured an answer: “The dogs don’t like it.”

Gingrich’s problem is that the voters don’t like him. In 35 polls taken over the past 17 years, Americans expressed a negative impression of Gingrich 32 times. Republicans know that. In that same CNN poll where Gingrich was the top choice of Republicans, he was rated fourth most likeable —after Romney, Herman Cain and Perry. And far less likely than Romney to beat Obama.

Romney has his own problem. He looks and talks as if he just walked out of Wall Street boardroom, at a time when Americans are talking about growing inequality.

It looks like the Republican race is coming down to a choice between two problematical contenders. Romney is Mr. 1 Percent. Gingrich is Mr. Gridlock.