There was a telling quote in yesterday’s Politico article about the way many conservatives are backing off on criticism of Newt Gingrich. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) said the former House Speaker’s comeback reminded him of Napoleon’s return from Elba. “Now it’s like Napoleon showing up for the 100 days. We all may follow him into battle again — and you just hope it’s not Waterloo.” Judging by virtually every poll of Republican voters taken in the last couple of weeks, the GOP had better hope not. But Cole may have a point. In March 1815, the French remembered only what was good about the Corsican when he returned from exile. But they chose not to think about his subsequent defeats that had nearly destroyed their country. The same may be said about the manner in which many Republicans have suddenly remembered the glory Gingrich earned in the early 1990s during his tenure as one of the most successful House minority leaders in congressional history while forgetting the fact that he was among the most disastrous Speakers.
Politico is probably wrong to read too much in the absence of a burgeoning “stop Gingrich” movement at the moment. Rest assured if he wins Iowa and appears to be heading to the nomination by mid-January, many in the GOP — especially office-holders who will have to run underneath him on the ballot next fall — will be seeking to do just that. Considering no votes have yet been cast, the idea of a “stop Gingrich” movement is clearly premature. He may well parlay his current momentum into a stranglehold on the nomination next month if the polls hold. But a lot of the people quoted in the Politico story know Gingrich well enough to realize that gives him plenty of time to implode.
The Gingrich bubble is stronger and has lasted longer than most observers (including this one) thought possible. It seemed preposterous that conservatives could have forgotten or forgiven the disgraceful end to Gingrich’s tenure as Speaker or his decade as a Washington influence peddler after he left office. His inconsistencies make Mitt Romney’s flip-flopping on the issues look like a model of stability. Yet all conservatives seems to care about Gingrich is the fact that a) He is not Mitt Romney; b) He has done well in the debates, and they believe he’ll demolish President Obama in this format next fall; and c) Once upon a time, he was the inspirational fire-breathing leader of the conservative moment in this country.
To listen to many of his supporters these days, Gingrich’s conservative bona fides seem to have a lot more to do with the past than the present, which makes sense as many of his positions on issues like Medicare reform, immigration or foreign policy are clearly to the left of Romney and much of the GOP field. While the candidate would have us believe there is a new Newt who has learned from his mistakes, that appears to be limited to concerns about his personal life. The rest of his persona — the ideas maven and would-be visionary — is very much the same as the old Newt. And the increasing talk about the glory of 1994 seems predicated on a strategy of positioning him as the man who will take down Obama the same way he toppled the Democratic congressional majority 17 years ago.
That historic achievement was a singular moment in our political history, and Gingrich will always be able to bask in the glow of its memory. But recalling that victory while ignoring much of what followed is pretty much the same thing as assessing Napoleon’s career as if it ended after Austerlitz, while sweeping his calamitous campaigns in Spain and Russia under the historical rug.
Time will tell whether Republicans are sufficiently sold on the new Newt to carry him to the nomination. But given his track record, it’s fair to say the only question about when his Waterloo will arrive will be whatever happens before or after the Republican convention next September in Tampa.