When Lisa Miller found out that former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich would be signing books on Saturday in McLean, Va., she hauled out her video camera. Miller, a Virginia businesswoman and sometime Republican candidate for local office, had gone to every Tea Party event and town hall meeting that she could get into this year. Every time, she’d turned on her camera and recorded a short on-the-scene video editorial about what was at stake. “I’m asking for Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress to return our money,” she said in an April 15 video.
[buttons1] She had a bone to pick with Gingrich. On October 16, the former Speaker of the House endorsed Dede Scozzafava, the Republican candidate for the open seat in New York’s 23rd Congressional District. He was the last high-profile Republican to do so. Since then, Republicans from Sarah Palin to Dick Armey to Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-Minn.) have endorsed Doug Hoffman, the Conservative Party candidate in the special election. If those politicians needed proof that they were doing right by the Republican base, they need only look to people like Miller and the twenty other Tea Party activists at the Barnes & Noble to demand an answer from Gingrich. In an organizing e-mail passed on to TWI, one activist suggested that they bring signs reading “Newt, You Know Better,” and grumbled that “if Tea Partiers can’t stop so-called conservatives from selling out, we might as well give up.”
The Tea Party activists got their time with Gingrich. His answer, uploaded to Miller’s YouTube account, made national news. “My bias is to be for the nominee of the local party,” Gingrich said, patiently, “and I don’t second guess the local party.” The Republican candidate had a better chance of winning the election, he argued, and it was foolish “for the conservative movement to think splitting in the special election is a smart idea.”
The day after meeting the Tea Party activists, Gingrich appeared on C-Span and announced, in a roundabout way, that he would consider a 2012 presidential bid. But as far as voters like Lisa Miller are concerned–and they’re echoed by some established Republican strategists–Gingrich has done serious damage to his credibility among the people who’ll choose the next Republican presidential nominee. Conservatives and libertarians who’d already doubted Gingrich have used the Scozzafava endorsement as a cudgel, a way to emphasize their own concerns.
“Newt’s hurt himself a little bit,” said David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union and a pol with experience in intra-Republican squabbles that dates back to the Ronald Reagan-Gerald Ford primary battle of 1976. “It’s obviously not fatal, but if you go with the establishment all of the time, people assume that you’re part of the establishment. And that’s not a good place to be.”
Craig Shirley, a longtime Republican strategist who is working on Hoffman’s media outreach, called Gingrich a “friend” and would not disparage his decision. But he warned that “conservatives are going to point the finger at the NRCC and the Republican establishment for running hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads attacking Doug Hoffman.”
Online, the reaction to Gingrich’s decision has been swift and brutal. On October 22, he posted a lengthy explanation of his thinking on his Newt.org website, usually a hub for his fans. That posting has been drowned in negative comments, some sorrowful, some simply angry.
“You were the leader I was hoping the party could turn to,” wrote one commenter. “And then this…”
“It was people like Dede [Scozzafava] in Congress that got us to this point,” wrote another commenter. “You’re killing us!!”
“I was planning on voting for you in 2012,” wrote another commenter, “but that could be put on the back burner until I see the direction you are taking our country.”
Conservative opinion leaders have been just as rough, piling on Gingrich for mulling over a presidential run at the same time he defended Scozzafava.
“Newt for 2012?” wrote Michelle Malkin. “No thanks… constantly invoking Reagan isn’t going to erase the damage Gingrich has done to his brand over the years by wavering on core issues and teaming up with some of the Left’s biggest clowns.” Washington Times editorial writer Quin Hillyer wrote that Gingrich was “choking and sputtering” and had “lost touch with the concerns of the people he should be listening to.” Robert Stacy McCain, a conservative journalist whose occasional collaborator Lynn Vincent helped write Sarah Palin’s memoirs, labeled the former speaker “an unprincipled partisan hack.”
All of this comes after Gingrich–who polls well in potential 2012 primary tests–has put in several years cultivating the conservative base. In September, he appeared at Americans for Prosperity’s “Defending the American Dream” conference and talked about building a “non-partisan” conservative movement, with small-government activists entering both parties’ primaries to take the country back. In April, he even warned that a third party could rise up to replace the GOP if his party didn’t “break out of being the right-wing party of government” and apologize for its “big spending” ways under former President George W. Bush.
Bob Barr, a former House colleague of Gingrich who was the Libertarian Party’s 2008 nominee for president, chuckled when asked about the backlash to the former speaker’s turn away from that rhetoric. “Is anyone surprised?” asked Barr. “Newt’s not going to change. If conservatives are holding their breath about that, they’re doomed to die. It’s always good when these questions get asked about the Republican Party, but if you give up your principles to make sure the Democrats don’t win, that’s sort of a one step forward, five steps back sort of thing.”
In March, Gingrich became one of the first Republicans with national stature to endorse and embrace anti-tax Tea Parties. Gingrich’s 527 American Solutions for Winning the Future became a co-sponsor of the events, and Gingrich himself spoke at one of the largest April 15 events, a rally in New York City.
“I don’t think he ever was a viable 2012 candidate,” remarked Brett Joshpe, one of the other speakers at the New York rally. With the Scozzafava endorsement, “he certainly didn’t endear himself to his ‘base.’”
Eric Odom, a national Tea Party organizer who famously denied RNC Chairman Michael Steele a speaking slot at the April 15 Tea Party in Chicago, told TWI that he’d been “somewhat glad” when Gingrich endorsed the effort, and he’d added the “American Solutions” button to the official website. The Scozzafava had changed everything.
“On April 15, 2010, he would be one of the last people I’d ask for support,” said Odom. “I would not give him microphone time. I wouldn’t even welcome his endorsement or put his button on our website. If he runs for president, he would be in a position similar to where Dede [Scozzafava] is right now.”
Michael Patrick Leahy, a Tea Party activist who has transformed his TCOT Report website into a hub for Hoffman news, was just as harsh in his assessment. “In one ill informed decision, he has destroyed all the political capital he built up among the grassroots through his early public support for the Tax Day Tea Party,” said Leahy. “Every single person I’ve talked to in the Tea Party Movement is strongly supporting Doug Hoffman and simply can’t comprehend the former Speaker’s reasoning. His chances of securing support for a 2012 Presidential bid from the Tea Party Movement have turned to dust.”
Not all of the conservative activists reached by TWI were gloomy about Gingrich’s long-term prospects. Some suggested that the impact of the NY-23 election could fade as the 2010 midterms approached, and that if Hoffman pulled off a historic upset, all would be forgiven. But all admitted that Gingrich would find it harder to cast himself as a path-breaking conservative, bigger than his party.
“The fact of the matter is — and I happen to like Newt personally — he’s a Republican gladiator, not a conservative,” said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. “He’s done a lot of good for conservatives. His ideas tend to be conservative. But Newt’s a Republican first.”
Miller, back at home and watching her video of Gingrich answering her question appear on national news, was still disappointed in Gingrich’s response. The book he was promoting was a novel, about the bravery of George Washington and the men who won the Revolutionary War. She was mystified that Gingrich couldn’t see a historic battle when it broke out right in front of him.
“I’ve actually trained and gone to some of his functions for American Solutions,” said Miller. “But there’s a point where ‘pragmatism’ can erode our freedoms.”