One of the more enjoyable spectacles out of Washington lately has been the horror of establishment Beltway Republicans that Newt Gingrich just might be their presidential nominee, having jumped ahead of Mitt Romney in recent polls. The cause of this is simple if often disguised: Newt is the opposite of everything they just know to be true.
Take for example Peggy Noonan, who pronounced Gingrich all but dead in May, noting “I have yet to meet a Gingrich 2012 supporter.”
But last week, without quite admitting her analytical shortcomings, she said “the entire Washington journo-political complex has been taken by surprise by something that not only wasn’t predicted but couldn’t have been.”
At least not from Washington or Manhattan.
Back in our capital city, Jennifer Rubin, the Republican at the Washington Post, congratulated herself noting “I suggested that Republicans ‘could pull a name out of a hat and find a more consistent and personally stable conservative’ than Newt Gingrich. Many smart conservatives seem to agree.” Maybe Ms. Rubin should start listening to people she thinks are dumb.
And then there is Karl Rove, the man George W. Bush called the “architect,” who echoed the growing refrain of establishment Republicans that “Mr. Gingrich has little or no campaign organization in Iowa and most other states.” Yet somehow Gingrich is ahead by 12% in the RealClearPolitics average of Iowa polls.
When not writing for the record, the voices of the establishment are even more incredulous. Newt is not only not their first choice—he is their last choice.
Why is this so? The answer lies in the nature of the Beltway Republican establishment. The problem is that most of what Gingrich proposes runs counter to what they have been conditioned to accept.
After all, this basically remains the Republican establishment that ran both of the federal government’s political branches for the better part of the last decade and managed to achieve essentially no conservative goals. The establishment Republicans didn’t merely acquiesce to big government implications of George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” – they insisted on it. More than a few Bush officials who visited Capitol Hill lamented that it was difficult to tell the difference between Republicans and Democrats on spending issues. While President Obama has normalized trillion-dollar deficits, establishment Republicans got us halfway there during the previous decade.
Do not suppose Beltway Republicans have found religion since. Recall Republican Speaker Boehner claiming earlier this year that he would cut $100 billion of government spending—a modest goal considering the federal budget now exceeds $3500 billion. That cut soon became $61 billion, then a mere $39 billion (and realistically nothing when gimmicks are excluded). And Republicans share with Democrats parenthood of the subsequent ‘Super Committee’ fiasco.
Now reenter Newt Gingrich, the man whom Republican Washington just knows failed as Speaker of the House, despite the welfare, capital gains tax and balanced budget reforms that bear his fingerprints.
On EPA replacement, for example, Gingrich says: “I don’t think you can train the current bureaucrats. I think their bias against capitalism, their bias against local government, their bias against economic rationality, is just amazing.”
Here, Gingrich is revealing his reverence for Andrew Jackson, who in his presidency succeeded in replacing fully one-fifth of the federal bureaucracy, seeing this as a requirement for radical change.
Most Washingtonian Republicans view desires like this as hopelessly naive. During their careers, they have seen modest changes, but nothing like the major shifts in Washington that have occurred at turning points in American history. Those with historical knowledge of them tend to know only of times the bureaucracy grew as opposed to those where it was actually tamed.
The idea of reversing federal growth is fine to keep on the wish list, but those who advocate it seriously are seen as rubes—either new arrivals in Washington who just fell off a turnip truck or unsophisticated congressmen from ‘flyover country.’ To be a true Beltway Republican is to have accepted the assumption that the scope of government cannot be radically altered. And they think it is politically foolish to try.
Thus the establishment just knows that you run a moderate like Mitt Romney for president. Conservatives have no place else to go and independents will be attracted—historical evidence to the contrary be damned.
Gingrich challenges this, believing 2012 may be one of those historical turning points where voters will be most attracted by a candidate who offers a radical divergence.
But even more damning, Gingrich has the audacity to imagine that Washington can be run without his own party’s establishment. Their assumption of dominating the next Republican administration is not safe if it is Gingrich. He is not proposing to replace the Democratic piano player at the brothel that is Washington with a slightly sterner-sounding Republican. Instead, he claims he will close the brothel. And the establishment of his own party just knows that can’t happen. In their lives, it never has. And where are they then to go for their pork and porking?
The establishment may still prevail. There are nearly infinite news cycles until the nomination is won by someone. Gingrich’s opponents are not close to giving up and serious Wall Street money is falling squarely behind Romney. But the champagne glasses will clink a little lighter on the Potomac this season—a little Christmas miracle of its own.
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).