Let’s talk about Newt Gingrich for a minute. Growing up in the 1980s and 90s, Gingrich was at the height of his career right around when I started to pay attention to politics and the world around me. He was everywhere you turned in the newspaper and on television. It seemed that he loomed practically larger than life for my family, revered by my upper class Republican grandparents and reviled by my dues-paying union member parents. As a burgeoning little liberal, Gingrich was the Bogeyman and symbolic of everything that was going wrong with the country. When he resigned in 1998 (before I’d even had a chance to vote in my first election), I was so relieved that he was gone. We didn’t have to worry about him as a potential presidential candidate against my favorite Vice President, and we would be rid of him forever. Oh, sure, he’d write a few books and go on tour, but he couldn’t cause that much trouble, could he? Thirteen years later, all of a sudden the Bogeyman from my youth has returned.
For you young ones, Newt Gingrich was the Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1994-1998. He was a divisive figure, even amongst Republicans, and he survived through a leadership challenge in 1997. After a dismal showing for Republicans in the 1998 mid-term elections, Gingrich stepped down and resigned from the Congressional seat that he had just won re-election to. In the long four years that he served as Speaker, he ruled Congress with an iron fist. His inability to compromise was (among other things) cause for a shutdown of the national government in late 1995 and early 1996. He presided over one of the largest cuts to the US capital gains tax in its history, the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997. Under his leadership came sweeping welfare reforms and the “welfare to work” policies of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. He was known for telling the public (or anyone, really) exactly what they wanted to hear, then pushing a hard right line anyway.
After his resignation, he seemed to disappear. Every once in a while, he’d pop up as a talking head. He wrote a lot of books and went on a lot of book tours, for certain. But the lasting impression he left on the larger public was the punchline of his extramarital affairs and divorces (all the while railing from the Moral Right against Bill Clinton). Back in March 2011, Gingrich announced he was starting an exploratory committee for the 2012 Presidential race, which the media seemed to find thoroughly hilarious; it was not the first campaign season that Gingrich had tossed out the idea of running. In June, the top tier of his campaign staff quit abruptly, followed soon after by his primary fundraising staffers. I assume to hop on a campaigns that looked like they were actually going somewhere. Now all of a sudden, he’s the front-runner in a crowded race of eight or so Republican candidates.
So what happened?
The short version is that with such a large number of candidates, some of whom can’t count to three, keep it in their pants, or differentiate between an actor and a serial killer with similar names, if the devil you know is better than a loose canon, or some other mixed metaphor.
The longer answer is probably that a combination of things came together at just the right time to propel Gingrich to the upper tier of a very crowded field, where “anyone but Romney” is the Republican favorite. Gingrich was able to make a fresh start after the departure of his old staff and come back with some pretty impressive fundraising efforts. He has translated his experience in government, lobbying, and business into a relatively good showing in the Republican debates so far; as ever, he has an uncanny ability–even by politician standards–to turn on the charm and tell voters exactly what they want to hear. He has a pretty rocky personal life in his past, but almost all of that was on the table when he entered the race; he’s managed to avoid the serious gaffes and missteps that have befallen many of the other candidates. And believe it or not (and 17-year-old BaseballChica would have thought you were a lying liar who lied), Gingrich is one of the more moderate candidates in the race, second only to Romney.
And that last part? Well, that should be the most terrifying for those of us on the left because the combined power of Gingrich’s “moderate” stance and his ability to know what people want to hear make him a pretty significant challenger for the general election, even if he is an old name shilling the same old story.