How Newt Gingrich Blew the Primary and His Political Legacy

The former speaker squandered a huge lead in Iowa by letting his personal flaws get the best of him. Now, by going negative, he's making things even worse.


Rick Perry said, "Oops."

Newt Gingrich lived oops.

Gingrich never committed the kind of nationally televised blunder that Perry did -- failing to remember the three government agencies he would close if he became president. But make no mistake. Gingrich did much worse than Perry. And that's saying a lot.

Yes, Perry led in September and blew it. Gingrich led in December and blew it. That's almost impossible. At the heart of Gingrich's downfall lay a messy mix of his worst traits -- hubris, disorganization, and disdain for his opponents.

Throughout his career, Gingrich has risen above these flaws. At his best, Gingrich possesses keen insights, a deep appreciation of history's lessons, a respect for the mettle of his opponents, and a slavish devotion to creating a winning strategy and an organization to carry it out. These qualities helped Gingrich propel Republicans to the first House majority in 40 years and to the speakership in 1995.

All of these skills eluded Gingrich in December.

A month is a lifetime in politics. Thirty-two days ago, Gingrich told ABC News there was no tactical reason from to criticize his GOP rivals because "they're not going to be the nominee."

"I don't have to go around and point out the inconsistencies of people who aren't going to be the nominee," Gingrich said. "I'm going to be the nominee. It's very hard not to look at the recent polls and think the odds are very high I'm going to be the nominee."


Viewed in retrospect, that bit of arrogance has to be disconcerting for Gingrich supporters. What Gingrich said next, though, stands as an act of staggering political malpractice that may lead the remaining Gingrich backers in New Hampshire and South Carolina to re-evaluate everything.

"I don't object if people want to attack me," Gingrich told ABC's Jake Tapper. "That's their right. All I'm suggesting is, it's not going to be very effective. People are going to get sick of it very fast. I will focus on being substantive. And I will focus on Barack Obama."

Republicans did attack Gingrich. Iowa voters did not get sick of it. And Gingrich's poll numbers were cut in half in less than a month. Yes, negative ads took their toll in Iowa (more on this in a minute). But Gingrich's national numbers fell in the same period of time and at roughly the same rate. Viewed more closely, Gingrich looked less and less appealing and he did nothing to sharpen his message, contrast his record against his opponents or explain why he would be the best nominee.

As a result, the Gingrich who told ABC on Dec. 1 that "I'm going to be the nominee" was on Jan. 2 telling Iowans "I don't think I'm going to win" the first-in-the-nation caucus. Hours later, Gingrich offered a clarification after a campaign volunteer berated him for pre-emptive defeatism. In Gingrich's defense, he wasn't wrong.

The Gingrich meltdown bubbled even hotter today, and the contrast with the previously "positive" Gingrich couldn't be more telling or -- quite probably -- more damaging. The Gingrich who told ABC a month ago that he will be "substantive" and "focus on Barack Obama," today called GOP front-runner Mitt Romney a "liar."

Gingrich's fury over campaign commercials savaging him -- funded by an outside political group he says has direct ties to Mitt Romney's campaign -- finally boiled over in an interview today on CBS.

"This is a man whose staff created the PAC, his millionaire friends fund the PAC, he pretends he has nothing to do with the PAC. It's baloney," Gingrich said on The Early Show. "He's not telling the American people the truth. It's just like this pretense that he's a conservative. Here's a Massachusetts moderate who has tax-paid abortions in 'Romneycare,' puts Planned Parenthood in 'Romneycare,' raises hundreds of millions of dollars of taxes on businesses, appoints liberal judges to appease Democrats, and wants the rest of us to believe somehow he's magically a conservative."

"I just think he ought to be honest with the American people and try to win as the real Mitt Romney, not try to invent a poll-driven, consultant-guided version that goes around with talking points, and I think he ought to be candid."

All of these lines of attack have been open to Gingrich for weeks (Romney denies any role in the super PAC bashing Gingrich). He is resorting to them now because he's fallen to also-ran status already in Iowa and risks embarrassing, back-of-the-pack finishes in New Hampshire and South Carolina unless he can puncture the notion that Romney is the inevitable nominee and acceptably conservative.

That Gingrich didn't try this earlier exposes his fundamental misunderstanding of presidential politics and his own vulnerabilities as a candidate. When Gingrich was surging in early December he had to know -- or certainly should have known -- he lacked the money and organization to withstand sustained attacks from GOP rivals. When the attacks came, Gingrich either ignored them or danced around the charges.

Two lines of attack proved debilitating: Gingrich and his consulting company accepted $1.6 million from government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac at the height of the real estate boom; and Gingrich cut a TV commercial in 2008 with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on behalf of government action to combat global warming. Questions about both -- fed or reinforced by TV commercials attacking Gingrich -- came up time and again as Gingrich campaigned in Iowa.

Gingrich's answers proved unconvincing, and Iowa Republicans began to fall away in droves. In his earlier days as a GOP House upstart, Gingrich would have taken that criticism in stride and tried to drown it out by attacking his critics more venomously. This is what he began to do today on CBS, brandishing the biggest howitzer in American politics -- "liar."

Gingrich knows he's crossed a campaign Rubicon. With most of the results counted, he failed to finish in the top three in Iowa, and Gingrich knows he won't have the money he needs or wants to respond ad-for-ad in New Hampshire or South Carolina. That means Gingrich must earn media attention he cannot buy. The only way to earn it is to roast Romney as a phony conservative and a poll-driven flip-flopper.

The great risk for Gingrich here is that these lines of attack are already part of the Obama re-election playbook and may do nothing more than soften Romney up if, as many expect and the contours of the race suggest, he becomes the GOP nominee. When Gingrich was trailing badly, he didn't attack Romney because he wanted to shield him from an intra-party bloodbath. When Gingrich was leading, he showed similar strategic deference.

Now, as Gingrich faces a disappointing loss in Iowa, he's attacking Romney as harshly as any Democrat. If Gingrich keeps it up, he may do little to improve his chances but add considerably to Obama's anti-Romney highlight reel.

Gingrich never intended this to be his legacy.


Image: Mike Segar / Reuters