I guess I should have known.
A year and a half ago, I wrote a couple of posts (here and here) in response to the ugly political climate in the aftermath of the passage of the health care law. Those poisoning the atmosphere with rhetoric demonizing their opponents, I argued, were “Newt’s Kids.”
Ever since, various Republican candidates for president have tried to capture the rage on the right: Bachmann, Perry, Cain. But now it has fallen to Newt, the father of them all. It was Gingrich, I argued, who wrote the Republican play book:
No cooperation. Delegitimize your political opponents. Tell the people they are losing their freedom. Smear the other side with focus-group-tested words and phrases designed to produce an emotional revulsion among the electorate.In retrospect, it seems natural that these pretenders would have to make way for the real thing.
Consider this passage from a Gingrich speech:
This party does not need another generation of cautious, prudent, careful, bland, irrelevant, quasi-leaders who are willing as people to drift into positions because nobody else is available. What we really need are people who are tough, hard-working, energetic, willing to take risks, willing to stand up in a … slug fest and match it out with their opponent.A recent attack on Romney? No. A speech Newt made to College Republicans.
Yes, 33 years ago. Give him this much: Gingrich may change positions on policy as often as Romney, but his general approach to politics is the same as it ever was.
In that speech, Gingrich reduced his critique of the GOP to its essence: “I think that one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.” Ever since that day, Newt has followed his own advice, and has been consistently nasty.
Up until this point in the primary process, however, Gingrich has been selective about it. At nearly every debate, he has saved his nastiness for two targets: President Obama and the media figures asking the questions (with the notable exception of the last CNN debate, in which the questions originated with conservative folks from the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute).
What will be interesting to see from now on is whether he continues trying to be “the adult in the room” at the debates. Romney may attack him, Perry may feel the need to the same. And one thing we learned from his battles with Bill Clinton in the 1990s is that Newt can be bated. If he can avoid that temptation, and avoid reminding people why he became so disliked by the time he resigned from Congress in 1998, he may yet emerge as the Republican nominee.
In some ways, I think that would be appropriate. Newt Gingrich is more responsible than any other Republican today for the destructive politics that plagues us all. Barack Obama, beginning with his 2004 keynote address, through his 2008 campaign, and to this day in his conduct of the presidency, has said he wants to change those destructive politics.
As I wrote last spring, Gingrich is from a different generation than Obama. He wants to re-fight the battles of the 1960s, while Obama wants to move beyond them. There are worse prospects than a presidential election over whether Americans want a future marked by Gingrich's 1960s culture wars, "Only I can save Western Civilization" approach, or Obama's "let's reason together and find common sense solutions" style. I know which I prefer, and I suspect most Americans agree.