Newt Gingrich is seductive.
Every Republican owes him a debt. He extended Ronald Reagan’s legacy to Congress as the architect of the first GOP House in 50 years. His political sex appeal is a rare variety; Gingrich is loved for his mind, not his looks. Since he birthed the Contract with America, he has been elevated to the sparsely populated pantheon of transformational GOP leaders and, until recently, stood alone as the GOP’s engine of ideas. He is still venerated despite a decade in the political wilderness, though carrying heavy political and personal baggage. In fact, an insecure GOP remains so desperate for a man of ideas like Newt Gingrich that, at times, we even turn to Newt Gingrich to lead us. It is a relationship that has run its course.
Barack Obama can only defeat a Republican like Newt Gingrich. Obama barely won the presidency in 2008 though he held the best hand of cards of any candidate in our lifetime. Running against a discredited Republican Party and a noble, 72-year-old warrior who could not advance a vision of the future, Obama still required an unprecedented economic meltdown to put him over the top. And he still could not beat John McCain. He had to beat George Bush.
Anywhere in America where George Bush had a favorable rating under 35%, Obama won. Elsewhere, he lost. Cleverly, Republicans had engineered a contest where that was a small slice of the country. This election, with Democratic blue states like Florida, North Carolina and Virginia returning to Republican red and unemployment higher than any president who has won re-election has suffered, Obama needs a similarly unpopular opponent. Last election, Obama had George Bush to run against. This time, Davids Plouffe and Axelrod will have to create a George Bush. They will have to run the most negative campaign in modern history. So, somewhere in their political lair tonight, Axelrod and Plouffe are lighting candles, praying for the success of Newt.
Gingrich may be very good with ideas, but he is less so with that other thing you find often in politics: people. Without a care, he runs roughshod over them. The same Gingrich who left one wife in her sickbed with cancer, then abandoned another struggling against multiple sclerosis, has now thrown his entire party under the bus in pursuit of his own ambition. In his first campaign outing on Meet the Press, he abandoned the discipline he said a president must display. Paul Ryan and all the other Republicans who supported the Ryan budget outline, Gingrich explained, were offering “right-wing social engineering.” Newt Gingrich accusing someone of extremism is like Joe Biden saying they talk too much. Republicans will be haunted by Democratic ads that turn Gingrich’s words against them in 2012. And should he win the nomination, the campaign against the former speaker is a layup: Democrats will say Gingrich’s indiscretions pale when compared to the thoughtless cruelty he has displayed throughout his public and private life. Voters will be asked to wonder, “If that is how he discards those he is close to or loves, how would he treat you?”
Campaigns don’t pick candidates; they make candidates. Kill the king, become the king. Stand up to power and power becomes yours. This is the moment for a new generation of Republicans to release the past and inherit the future.
The opponent Obama needs to run against, the only one he can beat, is the old, uncaring Republican. It is not a caricature he needs to create. It lives, it walks, it breathes. It’s the Gingrich. In this operatic campaign of seduction, he is the devil in a red dress, a temptress who would lead Republicans to ruin.
Alex Castellanos is a longtime Republican political consultant.