Gingrich's attacks on Romney aren't really about the country, and are not really about the Republican Party. They're about revenge.
By all accounts, Newt Gingrich is about to get pummeled in New Hampshire, after just getting pummeled in Iowa. The former Speaker, once flying high as the national GOP front-runner, was brought low with a disappointing fourth place finish in Iowa. With John Huntsman and Ron Paul duking it out for the second and third place finishes, he'll likely also place fourth in New Hampshire, in large part due to a barrage of Mitt Romney SuperPAC funded ads.
Many following the New Hampshire primary expected the weekend debates would have changed the game. Surely the uber-aggressive Gingrich was going to gut Romney faster than a corporate raider guts a Mid-western factory. What happened to the Gingrich vs Romney Rumble in the Granite Jungle we were all expecting to see on Saturday and Sunday?
Newt's unexpectedly restrained performance proves that the former speaker is as complex, inscrutable, and fascinating a character as exists on the modern political scene. But could this really be happening? Could Newt be walking meekly into another drubbing in New Hampshire, turning the other cheek, perhaps inspired by his new found Catholicism?
In a word: No. Gingrich may be Shakespearean, but he's less Iago than Godfather. His icy demeanor this weekend in the face of the rage that we know is bubbling inside of him reminded me a famous scene from the movie -- a scene that sums up a certain concept of honor, of revenge, and of negotiation. In it, Singer Johnny Fontaine asks the Godfather for help landing a leading role in an upcoming film. The Godfather agrees and dispatches consigliere Tom Hagen to Hollywood in order to make studio head Jack Woltz "an offer he can't refuse." Hagen presents Woltz with a generous offer. The Godfather will finance the entire movie if only Woltz casts Fontaine in the role. Woltz angrily refuses. One morning shortly thereafter, Woltz wakes up to find himself and his bed drenched in blood. He pulls back the covers to find the severed head of his prized racehorse.
Newt made Romney a generous offer. If Mitt would call off the Super PAC, Newt would stay positive and run an "ideas-oriented campaign." Mitt refused and even taunted Gingrich, saying: "This ain't bean-bag," in the "Meet the Press" debate over the weekend, in essence telling Gingrich to grow a pair. Well, this week Mitt woke up next to a horse's head.
On Monday, all became clear. Gingrich was smug and restrained over the weekend because he knew that the first missiles were ready to launch. Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson had contributed $5 million to Gingrich's Super PAC, Winning Our Future. $3.5 million dollars worth of ads were going up in South Carolina. But more importantly, Winning Our Future had bought the rights to a 30-minute documentary about the job-killing destruction wrought by Mitt during his time at Bain Capital. Judging by the trailer, this thing is a doozy. It calls Romney "more ruthless than Wall Street" and includes devastating first-hand testimonials. One woman looks directly into the camera and says of Mitt: "I feel that is the man that destroyed us." Another says: "That hurt so bad to lose my home because of one man that's got 15 homes." It's bad. But will it matter?
In some ways, the trailer for "When Mitt Came to Town" has actually rallied conservatives to Romney's side. Many of the same conservatives who trash Romney regularly found the criticisms of Bain Capital and the corporate chop-shop method of money-making antithetical to their party's blind worship of the "free enterprise" gods. In fact, although the Super PAC ads and the documentary could well depress Romney's poll numbers, it's unlikely at this point that anyone but Mitt will end up with the nomination.
Nevertheless, outside of the deluded GOP echo chamber where teachers, firefighters, and civil servants are overpaid leeches protected by cigar chomping union bosses and where, in the infamous words of one GOP congressman, it takes $200,000 per year to feed your family, this ad is devastating. It cuts to the very core of what makes Romney precisely the wrong candidate for the age of the Tea Party/Occupy Wall Street political duopoly. In fact, the ad swipes at the argument that Romney has been making consistently and that has kept him in the catbird seat, that Romney is the most electable candidate. The privileged corporate raider who enriched himself by laying off workers in Midwestern swing states doesn't seem particularly electable.
Gingrich is, in the classic Gingrichian style further developed by Karl Rove, attacking Romney where he is strongest: electability. If that means, as is likely, that Gingrich loses the primary but succeeds in mortally wounding Romney for the general election, well, that's OK with Newt, because this isn't really about the country, and it's not really about the Republican Party. It's about Newt Gingrich -- and it's about revenge.
The full impact of the Newtron Bomb hasn't really even been felt yet. We've only seen the trailer. To go back to the Godfather analogy, Mitt hasn't really seen the horse's head yet, but a few drops of blood on his silk sheet let us know what's coming. Make no mistake: this movie will be utterly, totally devastating. Its impact isn't primarily targeted to the GOP electorate, but it will go right to the heart of Mitt's general election chances. Gingrich is basically using the movie to call Romney out as such an evil, greedy, cold-hearted, rapacious robber-baron that he turns the stomach of his fellow Republicans. This is like getting thrown out of a strip bar for treating the dancers as sexual objects. It's like getting thrown out of a hot dog eating contest for gluttony. Newt hopes to scream at the general election voter that Mitt is such an unbelievably heartless, cold, greedy person that the party that calls ketchup a vegetable and wants to throw people off unemployment during the worst recession since the Great Depression finds him heartless.
Only a Republican can make this argument. Democrats wouldn't have the stomach to paint such a harsh image and immediately would be blasted as anti-capitalist, redistribution-loving, socialists if they attempted to. Americans are looking for heroes right now, and they are looking for villains. The president has failed to be the hero that Democrats were hoping for, but if Gingrich can successfully paint timid Romney as the caricature of the rapacious robber baron villain, he might drive disappointed voters straight back into the arms of Obama.
Image credit: Krystal Ball