Candidates for the Republican presidential nomination haven’t even held their first debate yet, but former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is already scrambling to recover from a series of embarrassing miscues that threaten the candidacy he is widely expected to launch.
So far, he’s angered the conservative intelligentsia with an ostentatious defense of ethanol subsidies, botched the announcement of his exploratory committee, bombed on explanations for his repeated adultery and three marriages, been seen as flip-flopping three times on Libya within a month and awkwardly warned about a future atheist America dominated by Islamic radicals.
“Lots of candidates make mistakes and gaffes,” said Dr. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, “But Gingrich is offering himself as the tested senior statesman. He doesn’t get any mulligans, as he is discovering.”
“It definitely has not been a great start for Newt,” said Ford O’Connell, a veteran of the 2008 McCain campaign and chairman of the conservative Civic Forum PAC, “his team doesn’t seem to realize campaigning has changed a lot since he was last running for office. I think it really plagues him.”
Gingrich’s troubles began in Iowa in January when the GOP “ideas guy” took his defense of ethanol subsidies to a whole new level, suggesting critics of the subsidies are motivated by hatred of farmers.
“Obviously big urban newspapers want to kill it because it’s working, and you wonder, ‘What are their values?’” Gingrich said.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page, a key engine of conservative thought, blasted Gingrich’s unusual defense of the subsidies, calling his record on cutting spending “mixed” and saying his take “raises larger questions about his convictions and judgment.”
Then, at the beginning of March, Gingrich’s campaign fumbled the announcement of his exploratory committee, a key legal step in the process of running for president. After aides spent an entire day confirming to numerous news outlets that Gingrich would be announcing the committee, the campaign mysteriously pulled back. Now a spokesman says he’s in a nebulous exploratory “phase.”
Next, Gingrich bombed on explaining one of his most sensitive weaknesses as a candidate: his repeated adultery and three marriages.
“There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate,” Gingrich told David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network in an early March interview.
He’s “too patriotic to be faithful,” joked the American Spectator’s Philip Klein. “Memo to Newt Gingrich: Seriously, Don’t Even Bother Running,” blasted the the headline from Commentary’s John Podhoretz.
Gingrich later claimed his affairs and divorces gave him a special perspective on how serious it is to lie about adultery under oath.
“Obviously, it’s complex and, obviously, I wasn’t doing things to be proud of,” Gingrich said on Fox News Sunday, “On the other hand…I’d been in depositions. I’d been in situations where you had to swear to tell the truth. I understood that in a federal court, in a case in front of a federal judge, to commit a felony, which is what he did, perjury, was a felony.”
Gingrich’s difficulty in burying the issue is notable because many of the more sleazy details about his rocky personal life haven’t even been raised.
For instance, Gingrich disputes the account of his first wife, Jackie Battley, that he delivered her divorce terms while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer. However, his second wife, Marianne Ginther, had a similarly damning story. Ginther told Esquire Gingrich asked her to “tolerate” an affair with Callista Gingrich, now his third wife, she had just discovered. After she declined, his lawyer announced the affair had been going on for six years and that Ginther had known about it, she said.
On the Libya issue, Gingrich claims he’s been consistent, while others disagree. Certainly, for a man who has been in public life since 1974, he didn’t do a bang up job of clearing articulating a single position.
Feb. 24: “I don’t think we need to do any military force.”
March 7, after Obama said “Col. Gadaffi needs to step down and leave”: “Exercise a no-fly zone this evening. Communicate to the Libyan military that Gaddafi is gone…this is a moment to get rid of him. Do it. Get it over with.”
March 23: “The President said on March 3, Gadaffi has to go. Well, they’re now saying this is a humanitarian intervention, which is nonsense. If this is not designed to get rid of Gadaffi, then this makes no sense at all….I would not have intervened.”
March 24: “I was responding in each case to changes in Obama’s position.”
March 26: “If you ask me ‘will you jump in the lake?’ I’d say no. If you say, ‘gosh, we’re already in the lake, should I start swimming?’ I’d say yes.”
We report, you decide. Freshman Republican Rep. Ben Quayle of Arizona joked about Gingrich’s journey at Wednesday’s Congressional Correpondents Dinner this way: “By the way, Newt Gingrich sent a message, he said ‘he wishes he could be here tonight.’ And then, he sent another message, to say he doesn’t want to be here at all. Then I got another message, saying those last two messages actually said the same thing, but he won’t specify what that is. But in the end, he said it’s all Obama’s fault.”
Finally, Gingrich awkwardly warned about the dangers of atheism and Islamic radicals.
“I have two grandchildren — Maggie is 11, Robert is 9. I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they’re my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American,” Gingrich said March 27, according to Politico.
A secular atheist country obviously could not be dominated by radical Islamists. Gingrich’s spokesman says Newt forgot the word “or,” as in, America could be dominated by secular atheists, or it could be dominated by radical Islamists.
One question is whether the barrels of ink worth of scorn he’s earned in D.C. will matter in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina.
Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler pointed to the turnout at events Gingrich is holding all over the country.
1,200 people came to a movie screening in Ohio, and 200 people showed up for a Friday night movie screening in Des Moines, IA, Tyler said. “I think it’s going great.”
But experts say the former Speaker will have more than just a series of gaffes to overcome.
“There’s a sense that Gingrich represents the past, not the future, of the GOP. It’s not just his age—approaching 70. Other than Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich is probably the officeholder Americans most associate with the 1990s, which increasingly seems like a time long, long ago in a place far, far away. It is tough to shake that image. That’s the cost of Gingrich’s near 100% name identification among primary and caucus voters,” Sabato said.
“Since 2006, campaigning has changed more from then till now than it did over the 100 years before that,” said O’Connell, referring to the proliferation of blogs and the ubiquity of Internet video “gotcha” moments.
Ed. note: This article has been corrected. Gingrich’s first wife said he presented divorce terms, not papers, to her while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer. Gingrich’s spokesman, Tyler, said the two “regrettably got into an argument” while he was at the hospital for another purpose.