Is Gingrich the Tea Party Candidate?

Dan Foster is understandably baffled by the emerging Romney-Gingrich race, and he presents an interesting thought experiment to demonstrate the strangeness of the contest. But the thought experiment illustrates, to me, why this race may be a long-term boon for the Tea Party. First, here’s the hypothetical:

Imagine that Newt had spent the last six years running for president; fundraising, (re)building (burnt) bridges inside the party, establishing robust campaign infrastructure in key states, using the media to stay on the average American’s radar in an anodyne way. Imagine that, due to a combination of political acuity, dogged determination, and the GOP’s “it’s your turn next” tendency, Newt had emerged by the summer of 2011 as the ‘inevitable’ nominee. Now imagine Mitt Romney had left the governorship of Massachusetts for the private sector, and spent the last six years leveraging his political connections to pad out his net worth — not as a lobbyist, mind you, but as a managerial expert. Imagine he jumped into the 2012 race fairly early, but failed to make a major impact.

Part of Gingrich’s appeal, of course, is the fact that he spent so much of the Clinton administration fighting for conservative causes, and in some cases he won tremendous victories for the movement (and the Republican Party in general). Which is to say that in Gingrich’s case, being an insider isn’t the liability it would be for other “insiders.”

Doug Mataconis and Jazz Shaw debated what the conservative movement’s response would be to a general election Romney loss and its response to a general election Not Romney loss. They both seem to agree that if the Not Romney candidate wins the nomination and loses the general, there will be an anti-Tea Party backlash that will strengthen the Republican establishment. But this part is not really a thought experiment anymore. The Gingrich “surge” seems to have some staying power, which means the nominee will likely be Gingrich or Romney.

Will Gingrich get more Tea Party support than Romney? I would imagine so. But I don’t think that quite makes him the Tea Party candidate. Gingrich isn’t a grassroots conservative, and it doesn’t look like the nominee will be someone who really fits that profile. If Gingrich wins the nomination and loses to Obama, I think it will be quite difficult for people to blame the Tea Party. Gingrich isn’t what they ordered. And in fact, with Rick Perry at least, the Tea Partiers had their hearts in the right place, since Perry, on paper, was a strong candidate who simply didn’t pan out. He has a great resume and has exhibited plenty of ideological consistency.

Of course, he turned out to be a poor debater (though he has been better recently) in a race in which the debates were far more important than anyone expected them to be. If the GOP somehow nominates Perry, and then he loses to Obama, I think the Tea Partiers will endure the lion’s share of the backlash.

If, however, the party loses next year with Gingrich, I’m not sure how grassroots conservatives and Tea Partiers will get stuck with the bill, unless you argue that their anti-Romney vehemence consumed the party. But as the “establishment” calls for Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, and Paul Ryan to enter the race showed us, the anti-Romney atmosphere wasn’t completely a Tea Party construct.