Why a Newt Gingrich Candidacy Would Doom the Tea Party

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The movement can't support him without compromising itself. And opposing him if he's the GOP nominee? They likely don't have it in them.

elephants never forget.jpg

Gallup finds that 82 percent of Tea Party affiliated voters deem Newt Gingrich an acceptable Republican presidential nominee in 2012. They don't seem to realize that if he wins the nod their movement is doomed, regardless of how the general election goes. The Tea Party cannot support Gingrich without betraying its core principles. But the movement also cannot disclaim him once he is the Republican nominee.

Tea Partiers with a better instinct for self-preservation would see that none of the Mitt Romney alternatives still running would be as corrosive to their cause as the former Speaker of the House.  

Why?

The Tea Party wasn't just a reaction to President Obama or the financial industry bailouts. As Jonah Goldberg puts it, "a major motivating passion of the tea-party movement was a long-delayed backlash against George W. Bush and his big-government conservatism." Support for the War on Terrorism and the invasion of Iraq caused many conservatives to stay loyal to Bush. But that didn't mean they liked No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, the attempt at a guest worker program, TARP, or the Harriet Miers nomination. Especially after the defeat of John McCain, many on the right insisted they'd never again support Bush-Rove conservatism.

And Gingrich supported almost all the most controversial Bush-Rove policies! 

He favored No Child Left Behind, an unprecedented federal intervention in education. He supported Medicare Part D, a brand new, budget-busting drug entitlement. He supported "comprehensive immigration reform," perhaps the most divisive-among-conservatives policy initiative of the aughts. He urged the passage of TARP. And he even spoke favorably about the infamous Harriet Miers nomination, a George W. Bush misstep that caused many of his most loyal supporters to rebel.

Tea Partiers pledged that if they had their way the GOP would never again have as its champion a federal government enlarging, entitlement expanding, amnesty urging, Bush-style Republican.

To do so just four years on would be a significant failure.

Another Tea Party talking point is its suspicion of Washington, D.C., insiders. For all Sarah Palin's flaws, the Tea Partiers who rallied around her could at least justifiably claim that she had authentic roots far from Washington and a record in Alaska of taking on corrupt political insiders who sought to enrich themselves at public expense. Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain -- all these flawed Tea Party favorites have at least some claim to outsider status.

But Gingrich? He is the epitome of the Inside the Beltway insider, and not only because of his long stint in Congress. After retiring, he profited lavishly off connections he made on the taxpayer dime, earning hundreds of thousands of dollars influence-pedaling. Most famously, he got $1.6 million from Freddie Mac, the very entity that many conservatives regard as most culpable for the financial crisis. And then he had the temerity to insist that he was paid as "a historian," an explanation so transparently farcical that it can justifiably be seen as an insult to the intelligence of GOP primary voters.

As if supporting such a man weren't incoherent enough already, a movement that valorizes Joe the Plumber, family values and hockey moms is now rallying behind a long-winded former academic turned career politician with an affinity for private planes, chauffeurs, and buying Tiffany and Co. jewelry for his third wife. It's as if Kanye West wrote a politician into his last album.

Runaway, Tea Partiers! Why don't you just runaway? 

Ron Paul supporting Tea Partiers would be the first to bail from a coalition that reshaped itself around Gingrich. In Reason magazine, Jacob Sullum runs through some of Gingrich's appalling positions on civil liberties: that the War on Terrorism somehow makes null certain rights to free speech and due process; that the government should stop the construction of a mosque until the day when Saudi Arabia permits churches and synagogues to be built; the proposal to escalate the War on Drugs by executing drug smugglers; support for warrantless wiretaps; and extreme hostility toward the co-equal judicial branch. It's true that only a small subset of Tea Party voters actually care about civil liberties with any kind of consistency, but Gingrich will alienate them.

And the rest of the movement? Confronted with Gingrich's heresies, which are sure to spill from his novelty-addled mind regularly, they'd have to decide on their next move: leave or live with it. 

Some affiliated voters won't support in good conscience a guy who favored all the things they railed against after it happened under Bush. Others will be disgusted by the revolving door cronyism, and still others will be upset that the Republicans nominated a twice-divorced adulterer (with a record of supporting an individual mandate in health care). There is a small chance that a narrow Gingrich win at the end of a long, drawn out primary, wherein his Tea Party support suffers, could result in a third party run that divides the right side of the political spectrum.

Much more likely is that Republicans, including most Tea Partiers, rally around the GOP nominee, even if it is Gingrich. That might do even more damage to the Tea Party, as it would be the ultimate act of compromising principle and ideological purity for the sake of beating the Democrats.

It would seem worthwhile in the immediate aftermath of a Gingrich win. And then President Gingrich would take office, and proceed to behave like... well, a decades-long Washington insider who supported No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, the attempt at a guest worker program, TARP, and the Harriet Miers nomination. Every conservative betrayal would be a reminder that the Tea Party helped elect just the sort of man they'd so righteously vowed to eschew.

The label wouldn't stand for anything anymore.

And a Gingrich loss to Obama? In a world where the Tea Party was seen as responsible for his rise, it would be discrediting, as losses always are for the faction that urges a divisive candidate. Along with the blame game, there'd be four more years of Obama, which Tea Partiers regard as the ultimate failure. No wonder that a Gingrich win is Nancy Pelosi's dark, twisted fantasy.

Surely the Tea Party can come up with a better plan

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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