If you were building a house and lost your architect, contractor and bank financing all at the same time, you probably would reconsider going forward with the project. That is the challenge faced by Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich who in the past two weeks has seen massive defections from members of his political and finance teams, while also losing the endorsement of his own home state governor, Sonny Perdue of Georgia.
"I was very disappointed, frankly, that I believe the potential of Newt Gingrich did not translate itself into the focus of a campaign. And that's unfortunate. I thought Newt had that potential,” said Governor Perdue as he unceremoniously distanced himself from the candidate who hoped to be Georgia’s “favorite son.” That sounded as much a eulogy as a political statement.
So will the first casualty of campaign 2012 be the person who was supposed to be the smartest guy in the room?
Newt Gingrich was reported to have the best brain in the business among conservatives and was a virtual one-man think-tank. When it became clear he was announcing his candidacy for president, there was a commonly held belief that even if Newt didn’t win, he would bring a lot to the table by way of ideas and energy. As one GOP insider put it, “Newt’s candidacy was supposed to benefit the process.”
However, since Newt Gingrich announced on May 11 via Twitter and You Tube, he has suffered through enough missteps and unforced errors you could be forgiven for thinking he had been given a starring role in the political candidates’ equivalent of “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes.” This one-time college professor, who was supposed to be the smartest candidate in the race, may end up teaching the class on “how not to run for president,” by the time the first vote is cast in Iowa.
Recent defections by his staff and political supporters are just major symptoms of what is likely a terminal disease for Newt’s presidential ambitions. Here are three self-created narratives that threaten to sink the Gingrich campaign.
Newt as Judas: In his first nationally televised interview as a presidential candidate, Gingrich allowed himself to be painted as an opponent of Rep. Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, who many rank-in-file Republicans consider to be a courageous and visionary leader on entitlement reform and deficit reduction.
By using terms like “radical” and “social engineering” Gingrich offered liberal opponents of the Ryan plan with the sound bites they needed to run against every Republican congressman who voted for it.
Regardless of the distinction Gingrich was trying to make, it was evident he was willing to publically undermine his own Party’s efforts in hopes of separating himself from the pack. So instead of being viewed as a thinker or leader, this move cast Newt from the onset as a traitor.
Newt as McKinley: President William McKinley popularized the concept of the “front porch campaign,” which was a more low-key approach that didn’t value the retail aspect of politicking.
The idea was that a candidate would give a series of speeches to people who came to see them, and mostly remained close to home. That may have worked in the late 19th century, but in modern American campaigns, especially at the primary and caucus level, all politics is local.
Gingrich has allowed the perception to be created that he is agnostic about retail campaigning, and has kept a relatively thin travel schedule, unless you include a two week vacation he took with his wife several weeks ago.
By the campaign’s own description, the emphasis will be on leveraging social media and technology along with televised debates. So while voters may not make the historic connection between Newt’s campaign in 2012 and McKinley’s campaign in 1896, they will not respond well to a “front porch campaign” that does not allow them to connect with a presidential candidate the way voters have grown accustomed too.
Calista as Judith: Hillary Clinton transformed the traditional role of the candidate’s spouse from dutiful wife to trusted confidant and powerful adviser.
Since then candidate’s spouses have been able to point to a model, in which they can assume a much more prominent role in campaign operations.
Elizabeth Dole and Michelle Obama both attempted similar strategies. But one recent spouse has become the poster child for “spouse as strategist gone bad.”
When Rudy Giuliani ran for president in 2008, he was the early front-runner, largely due to his popularity as “America’s Mayor” coupled with reputation as a, strong-willed, authentic and no-nonsense leader who knew how to get things done.
That image was quickly undermined when people began to believe that Giuliani’s wife Judith developed an over-sized, and worse, negative influence on the campaign. Even supporters who adored Rudy, would bemoan Judith’s interference and meddling in the campaign’s operations.
Fairly or not, Calista Gingrich is quickly assuming that same moniker as part of the “worst spouse” club.
Ironically, both Judith and Calista are each of these two men’s third wives, which unto itself invites a not so fair-share of criticism. But in the case of Calista, her lines of credit at Tiffany & Co. and rumored support of Gingrich’s “social engineering comments” have made her a liability.
In assessing Gingrich’s campaign, it is difficult to make a compelling argument for a comeback or even assert that the Republican candidate selection process has been in any way enriched by virtue of his candidacy.
Sadly, the most valuable lessons derived from his campaign, so far, may be that it will serve as a lesson in what not to do for future presidential candidates.
Tony Sayegh, is a Republican strategist and communications consultant. He got his start in politics working for Jack Kemp. You can e-mail Tony at firstname.lastname@example.org.