Romney's 1994 Problem—and How Gingrich Could Benefit

While Gingrich was ascending to Speaker of the House on the back of the "Contract with America," Romney was waging a senate campaign with a much less conservative platform.

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To anyone who thought GOP front-runner Newt Gingrich attacked Mitt Romney Saturday by joking he was only one loss to Sen. Edward Kennedy away from "career politician" status, think again.

Compared to what Gingrich could have said, that was no attack. It was practically a Cinnabon served with cold milk.

Romney remains a well-funded, well-organized candidate with a raft of supporters in many states. But he's weak -- so weak his campaign advisers now envision a long slog in pursuit of the nomination -- one that could last until the California primary on June 5. This is what passes for optimism in Boston. It reminds me of Hillary Clinton's optimism after then Sen.-Barack Obama fought her to a tie on Super Tuesday.

Two points about the Romney-Clinton optimism convergence: we all remember how well it worked out for Hillary; that Romney and his team now see a fight for the nomination lasting until June even before a single vote has been cast bespeaks a grudging acknowledgment -- bordering on panic -- that Gingrich's momentum is real, debates are unlikely to rattle him and playing the long game is the only option left.

The deeper issue for Romney is that Gingrich, who has managerial and temperamental issues of his own, is just about the worst Republican challenger he could face at a time when undecided Republicans are trying to decide if Romney is an ideological cipher.

In this regard, 1994 is very tough on Romney. The contrast between Romney and Gingrich in this year of GOP ascendancy and congressional clout unrealized since the days of Eisenhower and Truman that many conservatives may find it disqualifying. Whatever Republicans come to think of Gingrich's leadership style as speaker, they know Gingrich helped lead the GOP to its first House majority in 40 years and didn't tinker around the edges with his newly won power. An agenda that achieved spending cuts, sought and over time won a balanced budget, welfare reform, tax cuts, telecommunications reform and congressional reform is not and was not timid.

Gingrich led this effort, he said, on behalf of the legacy of President Ronald Reagan. Gingrich said at the time the "Contract With America" was the second stage of the Reagan revolution, an attempt to translate his unfinished policies by means of a GOP-led Congress.

At the same time, Romney was running against Kennedy in Massachusetts, a liberal state where a successful Republican had to soften some of the harder edges of the GOP's anti-Clinton, anti-Democratic rhetoric. Romney softened them past the state of sponginess and came out on the hardened side of opposition.

When asked about the Contract, Romney said: "It is not a good idea to go into a contract like what was organized by the Republican Party in Washington, laying out a whole series of things which the party said 'These are the things were are going to do.' I think that's a mistake."

Watch the Romney answer on the Contract here.

Gingrich called the idea of a party committing to an agenda and inviting voters to throw them out if they didn't follow through "revolutionary." At an important moment in the party's history and ideological move toward conservatism, Gingrich and Romney drew very different conclusions about what would work and what would fail. This is known as a contrast and a historical fact.

As for Reagan, Romney said in a debate with Kennedy at Faneuil Hall in Boston, that he was "an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush," For emphasis, he later added: "I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush." You can watch that riff here at the time code 2:13.

Gingrich could have brought up these parts of Romney's 1994 past, but demurred. He could have also talked about Romney's stated commitment to "sustain and support" Roe v. Wade if elected to the Senate, a position he said he was "committed to" and had been since 1970 -- three years before the landmark Supreme Court ruling on abortion. Romney's since acknowledged a profound change of heart on this issue, but his answer in the debate with Kennedy made it sound like his pro-choice position was equally profound. It's at 1:14 of this video.

Gingrich could have brought up all of this awkward Romney 1994 history. Instead, all he told Iowans was that Romney had lost to Kennedy and therefore had not become a career politician -- affirming what Romney likes to say is a valid point of contrast between the two.

Come to think of it, Gingrich didn't serve Romney one Cinnabon with milk. He served him two. On a porcelain plate. With milk in a crystal glass.

And he didn't even lose a bet.