Once again, Newt Gingrich vowed tonight on CNN to take the Republican presidential race to the convention in Tampa. To back up his vow, he compared this contest to the GOP race in 1976 when the Ronald Reagan insurgency against incumbent President Gerald Ford took the fight to that convention and came close to winning. But Gingrich’s comparison is ridiculous for a number of reasons.
First of all, that battle was a two-man race between Reagan and Ford. The current GOP race involves four candidates. But, of course, the conceit of Gingrich’s comparison is that of the candidates. He’s casting Mitt Romney in the role of Ford and himself as the new Gipper. Romney may deserve the Ford comparison, as he is a relative moderate and the choice of most of the party establishment to the extent that one actually exists. But the big difference is Gingrich is no Ronald Reagan.
Gingrich’s hubris is well-known, but the notion that he is in the same league as the great communicator is a joke. The point is it took a figure of enormous stature and charisma to nearly knock off an incumbent president in a series of primaries. That Republican revolt was fueled not by personal resentment of Ford, but of disgust with his détente policies and the other compromises made by the administration. Tea Partiers today may not trust Romney but they are angry with President Obama. In 1976 there truly was a fight for the soul of the Republican Party as conservatives were taking hold of the GOP. But that battle was won long ago and the Rockefeller liberals who once predominated (and largely formed the party’s real establishment) are long gone. Romney’s critics may see him as a moderate but by the standards of the Republican Party Reagan sought to revolutionize, today’s frontrunner is a conservative.
The former speaker of the House should, I suppose, be forgiven for saying anything to try and get his name in the news on a day when he may well be supplanted by Rick Santorum as the leading conservative alternative to Romney. But his attempt to link himself with Reagan’s legacy is still an embarrassing reach that says more about the candidate’s ego than his skills as a historian.