A few days ago, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich irritated many movement conservatives when he endorsed liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava over Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman for the upcoming special election in New York's 23rd congressional district.
Running in a conservative district, where the incumbent went off to be secretary of the Army, all three candidates have the distinction -- by virtue of holding one of the few 2009 elections anywhere in the country -- of seeing their race attract national attention and national surrogates.
Hoffman had previously earned the backing of prominent conservative organizations such as the fiscally conservative Club for Growth and the socially conservative Concerned Women for America PAC. In the end, Gingrich's endorsement may not matter to the outcome of that race -- Scozzafava seems to be losing steam anyway -- but down the line it may matter to Gingrich.
The former House speaker drew immediate fire from popular conservative blogs like RedState and MichelleMalkin.com, who cast him as an apostate. Erick Erickson of RedState.com wrote that Gingrich's endorsement of Scozzafava "aligns Newt with ACORN, which has twice endorsed Dede [and] with Planned Parenthood and NARAL, active supporters of Dede." Erickson went on to add that "Newt Gingrich stands athwart history and pees on the legacy of 1994."
In response, Gingrich invoked Big Tent Reaganism, saying, "If you seek to be a perfect minority, you'll remain a minority. That's not how Reagan built his revolution, or how we won back the House in 1994."
This was not the first time Gingrich has provoked conservatives with his seemingly iconoclastic ways. Despite what most of the liberals in the media might believe, Gingrich has occasionally parted ways with his brethren on the right over the years, not on policy questions per se, but stylistically and strategically. For example, he teamed with Nancy Pelosi
on a global warming TV ad, endorsed liberal Maryland Rep. Wayne Gilchrist over conservative Andy Harris, and endorsed President Obama's speech to school kids
Gingrich's endorsement of Scozzafava hardly opened floodgates of support for her. In the days following his endorsement of the Republican candidate, several prominent conservatives, including Sarah Palin, Dick Armey, Steve Forbes, Rick Santorum and lastly, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, endorsed Hoffman.
Make no mistake; this special election in New York is not just one mere congressional race. As Erickson himself Tweeted, for conservative activists it is "a hill to die on." And Human Events reporter Jon Gizzi wrote that the race had become "a top priority among conservatives nationwide." In many ways, the race is serving as a proxy for the war going on between grassroots conservatives and establishment Republicans over the future direction of the Republican Party. Gingrich has sided with the establishment. But although online conservatives are threatening to hold a grudge against the former speaker, I believe it is unlikely that Gingrich will suffer for his endorsement. The blogosphere's splenetics notwithstanding, Gingrich is the only person who could pull this off without doing long-term damage to his standing in the conservative firmament.
After all, his past actions have not harmed him a bit. He is still cheered on when he appears on Fox News or when he speaks at meetings like the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). For a movement that seems trigger-happy to excommunicate "traitors," Gingrich repeatedly gets a pass. There are several reasons for this.
First, Newt Gingrich is brilliant, and liberals know it. We conservatives like that. In an era when conservatives are criticized for lacking ideas, Gingrich is an idea machine. He can go on television and eviscerate liberal platitudes. A former professor, he knows history and is always thinking creatively. Great communication skills can cover a multitude of sins. Gingrich is like the star football player who, when he stays out past curfew, his sins are overlooked.
Second, just as Newt is willing to create controversy (and attention) by leaning left, conservatives are confident his heart is in the right place, and he seems to know just when to throw a bone to red-meat conservatives. Last summer, he gained much attention from his "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less" campaign (and slogan). Most recently, at the same time he was endorsing Scozzafava he was also pushing his latest patriotic tome, "To Try Men's Souls: A Novel of George Washington and the Fight for American Freedom."
Third, Gingrich's point about the perils of insisting on party purity on every issue cannot simply be wished away: Here is how the former speaker explained the dilemma in the New York 23rd District on his Web site: "In order to stop President Obama and the Democrats in Congress, I would rather see Christie win in New Jersey, Bob McDonnell win in Virginia, and have the Republican, Dede Scozzafava, win the special election in NY-23 so that election night in 2009 is a devastating defeat for the Democrats. . . . We have to decide which business we are in. If we are in the business about feeling good about ourselves while our country gets crushed then I probably made the wrong decision."
Fourth, and this cannot be overstated, Gingrich is the only man alive who can claim responsibility for the Republican Revolution. In other words, when he speaks of Big Tent conservatism, he has a credibility that no one else in the party – no one since Reagan, anyway – can match. As for that 1994 GOP sweep referenced last week by both Gingrich and his critics, well, he was both its intellectual author and the politician with the skill and savvy to actually make it happen. That experience essentially makes him bulletproof to accusations of being a "sellout." Simply put, it's not believable to the vast majority of people that Gingrich is anything other than a loyal conservative.
It is important to note that one reason Gingrich "gets away with it" is that he has been practicing punditry and not professional politics. Would Gingrich be punished by conservatives in the ballot booth if he were to go to Iowa and campaign as a would-be Republican presidential nominee? I don't know. On a recent C-SPAN appearance
, he flirted with the idea of being "drafted" as a candidate, but I suspect that was done in order to stay relevant and sell books (flirting can be mutually beneficial; the last time he flirted with running for president, we both ended up on the front page of The New York Times
I would be surprised if he threw himself back into the electoral fray, despite his Sunday statements to the contrary. If he does run again, well, I think two things are likely:
For starters, Gingrich would not run a traditional campaign. He would not bother himself with the tedious work of recruiting county chairmen in New Hampshire or attending pancake breakfasts in Des Moines. I believe it is more likely that he'd join the race in the eleventh hour, hoping his freshness would propel him past candidates who by then would have grown stale.
In addition, I predict that only a handful of gadflies will question Newt's conservatism. They would be the same type of "Let-Reagan-Be-Reagan" gadflies who actually enhanced The Gipper's credibility in the larger world with their niggling criticism. But it doesn't matter: Newt's not running.