Newt's Teflon Suit?
Here's the conventional wisdom. Starting in January, the competition that produces heavy friction in the GOP caucuses and primaries will lay bare Newt Gingrich's virtues and vices. Should Gingrich survive that process and win the GOP nomination, he'll be "inoculated" from attacks. Besides, Gingrich has been around forever and is a known quantity.
But don't bet on that; don't accept glib arguments that Gingrich's long career in politics and a stiff vetting through the Republican presidential nominating process will protect him from whooping cough, diphtheria, and the massive broadsides and rifle shots of the fossil media and desperate Democrats.
Dick Morris, among others, has advanced the notion that a tough vetting will make any GOP nominee's foibles old news to general election voters. The GOP nominating fracas will certainly help diminish Gingrich's vulnerabilities (or cause him to be jettisoned), but the likelihood that the GOP nominating process takes Gingrich off the "Target-Rich Environment" list merits skepticism.
It's a foregone conclusion that President Obama's reelection campaign, the Democratic National Committee (DNC), liberal independent expenditure groups, and the vast majority of conventional media will wage an unrelenting and historic effort to vilify and destroy whoever the Republican presidential nominee is, whether that's Mitt, Newt, or one of the other contenders. True enough. But candidates' vulnerabilities aren't all created equal. Gingrich's vulnerability mix involves his personal life, character, judgment, personality, and political career. No other GOP candidate scores in all those areas or to the degree that Gingrich does. In the vulnerability game, Gingrich holds a royal flush.
As far as anyone knows, Mitt Romney isn't open to attacks on his personal life. Yes, there would be quiet and overt attacks on Romney's Mormonism, should he secure the GOP nomination, but those aren't likely to resonate strongly among usually religiously tolerant Americans. Neither is Michele Bachmann or Rick Santorum open to personal attack as Gingrich is, for example.
Gingrich, fairly or not, has a ton of baggage that he would bring into a general election campaign against President Obama. Gingrich's checkered personal life says something about his character and judgment; so does his straying from conservative orthodoxy at times (though this would impact far less negatively among the general electorate), and Gingrich's shoot-from-the-hip style has gotten him into trouble on more than one occasion (ask Paul Ryan).
Gingrich would go into the general election with the Pelosi threat triggered. Former Speaker Pelosi has pledged to revive all the ethics charges leveled against Gingrich during his days in the U.S. House and as speaker. Forget that most of the ethics charges against Gingrich were ginned up by Democrats and dismissed, and that others were minor violations. Pelosi and the Democrats will go after Gingrich hammer and tongs as sleazy, providing distorted and out-of-context documentation to bolster their arguments. And Democrats will resurrect the attack dog and "Gingrich that Stole Christmas" tropes from Gingrich's U.S. House days. The latter to damage Gingrich's likeability.
Not every attack on Newt Gingrich, GOP presidential nominee, would stick, of course, nor would any one attack necessarily stick fatally (it's the combination of attacks that could prove fatal). But let's get back to the question of inoculation, as in Gingrich building immunity to the left's attacks (that includes the media) as a result of the nominating process.
How transferrable is the supposed intraparty immunity Gingrich is building to attacks to the calculations of average voters, post-nomination?
First, there's a bit of an assumption on the part of conservative activists and voters that because they'll be attentive and engaged through the nominating process, average voters will, at least, be attentive. Some will, but many will not.
There are legions of voters who won't engage the presidential election until post-Labor Day 2012. Most voters are casual voters; politics and elections are peripheral concerns in their lives. Casual voters -- mostly categorized as independents -- tend to choose candidates based on impressions, feelings, and wind direction (where other voters go).
The Democrats and media well understand that casual voters are late to focus on a contest, including a presidential contest; hence, they'd fire away at Gingrich early in an attempt to control the environment in which voters decide later. The post-Labor Day assault on Gingrich would make the Battle of Midway look tame by comparison.
Of course, should the economy deteriorate further, expect more attentive and engaged voters sooner.
Second, there's generational change to consider. Older voters may well remember and have factored in Gingrich-the-pit-bull from the 1980s (legit and to the GOP's benefit then) and the Gingrich-as-Mr. Potter propaganda from the 1990s, but younger voters may not be nearly as familiar, and by "younger" what is meant are voters who were born in the 1960s and 1970s, some of whom are in early middle age. These voters aren't as likely to remember those unflattering iterations of Gingrich, and they may not shrug them off when they learn of them.
Third, conservatives are familiar with Gingrich, so their perceptions of him have softened somewhat. As with a family member, conservatives are making allowances and accommodations for Gingrich's faults -- faults that strangers (the general electorate) may not so easily tolerate.
There's another argument in currency among some of Gingrich's conservative supporters: Newt-as-Churchill. Winston Churchill was a very flawed man in his way, and the comparison between Gingrich and Churchill isn't entirely unreasonable. Churchill had no business being elected British prime minister -- except for the Second World War. Context mattered greatly to Churchill's fortunes. Churchill probably would never have made it to prime minister in a Great Britain free from war. That brings us to Gingrich's fortunes.
Gringrich's electability would depend to a large extent on context. How dire do casual -- independent -- voters consider the nation's economy? Dire enough to overlook the very flawed side of Gingrich in favor of his prowess and virtues? Will the general electorate have had a craw full of the more agreeable Barack Obama's full-tilt run toward European statism and that run's adverse consequences to the economy?
Eleven months from now, will the economy be worse off (it's not likely to be better off)? If so, then Gingrich's flaws fade further, and the left's attacks on Gingrich will avail little, given that distressed voters might be willing to give anybody -- Justin Bieber, even -- a go instead of the hapless and ideologically trapped Mr. Obama.
Conservatives should back Gingrich if they believe he's the GOP candidate most likely to advance the conservative cause. As Barry Goldwater undoubtedly would have said, 2012 is about a choice, not an echo. No good comes from backing Gingrich blinkered, though. Democrats, clawing for survival, will of necessity be clearer-eyed as they seek to re-elect their failed president.
The year 2012 is shaping up to be one of the great election battlefields in the nation's history, with the forces of statism arrayed against the forces of liberty. It's a Battle Royale and grudge match all in one. The results of the 2012 elections could well set the nation's course indefinitely -- for good or ill.
If Newt Gingrich is the right candidate to lead the fight, nominate him, but be ready for one heckuva rumble.