Newt Gingrich's Incredible Nevada Concession Speech

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After losing to Mitt Romney Saturday in the state's caucuses he cast himself as an honorable man earnestly surprised by his opponent's attacks



After Newt Gingrich lost the Nevada caucuses Saturday, he could've given a gracious concession speech like a more conventional candidate. Instead he offered a reminder of why it is so difficult to believe anything he says. Rather than just affirming that he'd stay in the race, or offering an honest account of why he is doing so, he tried to cast upcoming campaign swings to Colorado, Minneapolis, and Ohio as a principled act of fidelity. "We have over 160,000 donors, 97 percent of whom have given less than $250," he explained. "We have an obligation to them to stand up for their values, their concerns, and the reasons they've gotten involved." It's an appealing notion of what a politician owes to the regular Americans who help fund their campaigns. But it sounds like pious baloney coming from a guy who has been urging Rick Santorum to drop out of the race for weeks. Or does he think that only Americans who give to him are owed a full campaign?

In any case, he began his remarks by pledging to stay in the race all the way to the Republican convention. And what followed was surreal. Arguing that he is the true conservative in the race, Gingrich insisted that he'd drive home the contrast with his "Massachusetts moderate" opponent. As he took questions from the press, however, the distinction he kept drawing with Romney concerned an issue that hasn't ever been a priority for conservatives. "Unlike Governor Romney I believe very deeply in helping the poorest Americans," he insisted. "One of the greatest challenges to conservatism is to turn the safety net into a trampoline."

Seriously?

The former House Speaker, longtime D.C. resident, and sometimes highly paid influence-peddler tested our credulity by casting himself as an outsider. Now he's assaulting it by pretending that conservatives are clamoring for a president who'll eschew focusing on the middle class, as Romney pledged to do - that what they want is a champion who'll spend more time making sure the safety net isn't the only thing the federal government is doing for the very poor. There's a reason no conservative has ever seriously attempted to implement such an agenda: the whole ideological movement is actively disdainful of the idea that government is capable of building or procuring a "trampoline" able to propel very poor people into the middle class.   

There is, finally, the Captain Renault routine Gingrich is doing when asked about his loss in Florida - he's shocked, shocked that the Romney campaign went so negative and said such nasty, misleading things in the debates:

I've never had a person stand next to me in a civil engagement and be as substantially dishonest as he was... I didn't have any good mechanisms to turn to somebody who was being blatantly dishonest to the entire country as a candidate for president! If you can't tell the truth as a candidate for president... how can the country possibly expect you to lead as president? And I frankly was stunned. I make no bones about it. In the second Florida debate, I had nothing to say, because I had never before seen a person I regarded as a serious candidate for president be that fundamentally dishonest. And it was blatant. And it was deliberate. And he knew he was doing it.

...It hadn't occurred to me that you would have the level of ruthlessness and the level of dishonesty you saw last week.

Does Gingrich expect us to believe this? That in a presidential debate he was surprised to hear dishonest rhetoric? That he wasn't even prepared for the possibility that someone on stage might distort his record? That he expected better from Mitt Romney? That he was so stunned as to be speechless? Give me a break. If Gingrich isn't lying, then he is the most naive and undiscerning man in America. And it's easy enough to rule that out, given his own long record of willfully inaccurate statements, attacks on opponents, political ruthlessness, negative ads, and all the rest. 

Far from highlighting how different he is from Romney, the Gingrich speech and press conference showed that the former House Speaker is willing to say anything to improve his electoral chances. That doesn't make him any less principled than Romney. But neither does it give Republican voters any good reason to prefer him. Thus the genius of the Romney strategy. It was briefly the case that uninformed conservatives could feel good voting for Gingrich. After all the negative ads, they'll not feel good about casting their ballot for anyone. And if you're gonna vote for a pandering liar regardless, better a disciplined family man than a mercurial egomaniac.

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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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