The fury unleashed by pundits on Newt Gingrich last week was about much more that his misstatement about Congressman Ryan’s reform proposal. Gingrich is the conservative candidate most reviled by the Republican elite. But his rejection by polite society, which long predates last week, is based more on horror that he might actually do what he says.
Consider Peggy Noonan, the commentator whose deep government experience amounted to fewer than two years spent as a disgruntled speechwriter. In the 25 years since, she has toiled to explain her emotionalist variety of Republicanism to we mere mortals. Last Friday, Noonan decreed of Gingrich: “[T]he best didn’t work with him anymore, because he was unsteady, unreliable, more likely to be taken with insight-seizures than insights.”
All of that from the Ryan Plan misstatement? Alas, it is not the first time Noonan has emoted ill will toward Gingrich. After he announced his candidacy, Noonan effervesced from her perch in liberal Manhattan that “I have yet to meet a Gingrich 2012 supporter… he’ll always draw appreciative crowds, and they’ll stand in line for his autographed books. But they will not choose him for president.”
Then there is George Will, the intellectual who has been penning articles from Washington since 1974. On a May 15th TV show, shortly after co-commentator Cokie Roberts made light of Gingrich’s religious beliefs, the high priest of Beltway conservatism decreed that Gingrich “is just not a serious candidate.”
But Will’s ill will is nothing new either. In March, he criticized Gingrich and assessed “There are at most five plausible Republican presidents on the horizon,” pointedly excluding Gingrich from the list.
Another past icon of Beltway Republicanism, Tom DeLay, whose tenure as House Majority leader tracked neatly with the intellectual bankruptcy and collapse of the post-Gingrich GOP, said in 2007 of the man who successfully piloted the 1994 Contract With America that “He knew nothing about running meetings and nothing about driving an agenda.”
DeLay’s more pragmatic approach accomplished considerably less, even under a Republican president, although it did eventually contribute to the 2006 Republican loss of Congress and a felony conviction for DeLay.
The list goes on. And when not opining on the record, Beltway insiders are even more incredulous that Mr. Gingrich even consider leading the party in unseating President Obama.
Gingrich’s error last week was an opening for the broadside against him, but not its true motive.
The truth is deeper. The oft-stated reasons for disliking Gingrich include that he failed as House Speaker; that he lacks discipline to drive an agenda; and—a most hypocritical gripe for political folk—that he has exhibited an ego.
These are implausible explanations. After all, Gingrich and his colleagues forced Bill Clinton to sign welfare reform and a balanced budget, which had eluded even Ronald Reagan. He also helped enact a child tax credit and capital gains tax reduction.
Gingrich passed through the House nine of the ten provisions of the Contract With America (the tenth requiring a two-thirds majority). While Gingrich surely stepped on toes and made mistakes, there was no textbook for how to be a Republican Speaker of the House in modern times. Those who succeeded him accomplished far less. The fact is, aside from Gingrich, there is only one other national leader who had been able to retard the growth of government in the postwar era—Reagan.
The real reasons for the Beltway’s dislike of Gingrich are more sinister. In outlining his decision to run, Mr. Gingrich expressed a desire to “clear away the liberal policies, the liberal bureaucracies and the Washington-centered system.” This is far more radical than what other top-tier candidates are contemplating. Establishment Republicans know he is serious—and therein lies the problem.
Within the Beltway, the ‘wets,’ as Margaret Thatcher once called the establishmentarians among her party, dominate the city’s few GOP provinces. These include the Republican-identified commentariat, think tanks, lobbying and public affairs firms, and staff positions. The difference in philosophy between the wets and government bureaucrats is less apparent each year.
Republican presidents come and go from Washington, but the wets are there forever. They believe it is their birthright to dominate the political positions of any Republican administration. Their achievement of this during the George W. Bush administration is the chief reason for its ineffectiveness and betrayal of conservatism. It is also a major reason that multiple waves of conservative votes at the polls since 1968 have seldom resulted in reduced government.
It gives the wets shivers to think of a horde of Newtonian barbarians arriving at the gates of Washington, ready to drain a swamp in which they feel rather comfortable. The wets suspect correctly that of all of the GOP candidates, Gingrich would most likely keep them from the positions of influence and prestige to which they feel entitled.
Even worse for them, Gingrich sees the 2012 race not merely as a contest to get to the 271 electoral college votes needed for President Obama to join the 14 million Americans unemployed by his policies. Mr. Gingrich has spoken much more broadly of using the election “to break the left for the first time since 1932.” In other words, he wants to put forth an option for truly radical change.
For the wets, it is kill or be killed. The war has begun.
Christian Whiton is the president of the Hamilton Foundation. He was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration and a policy advisor on the Giuliani and Gingrich presidential campaigns. He is author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books 2013).