Published on TheHill.com on January 31, 2012
For students of American politics, following the way the Romney campaign played Newt Gingrich in Florida is a lesson to learn and to keep. Romney’s people must have realized that Newt does best when he is positive. His bold ideas, clear vision, revolutionary insights and extraordinary perspectives resonate with voters and win him millions of supporters.
Romney, less compelling but more consistent, doesn’t need stellar debate performances or bold vision to win. The case for the former Massachusetts governor is more circumstantial: He can reach out to independents by virtue of his past apostasies on healthcare and abortion. He looks, talks and acts like a president. His record of job creation is exemplary.
But Newt needs the bold sally, the breathtaking moment of rhetorical clarity, to prevail.
So Romney’s people set out to mire Newt in negatives so he couldn’t and wouldn’t get out the positive message he needed to project to prevail. They tormented him with negative ads in Iowa. While the ads were generally accurate — the allegation about backing China’s forced-abortion policy aside — they presented only one side of the story and were stinging in their impact. Without funds, Gingrich couldn’t answer the negative ads. He fumed but watched, in impotence, as his vote share fell away.
In Spanish bullfights, the picadors torment the bull by sticking darts into his shoulders. Enraged, bleeding, frustrated and in pain, he lowers his head, snorts, paws the ground and charges straight at the matador, oblivious to the sword awaiting him behind the red cape. That’s about what Romney did to Gingrich in the January primaries.
Enter Sheldon Adelson, a Vegas billionaire who loves Newt. His affection runs so deep that he gave Gingrich the funds to destroy himself. With Adelson’s reported contribution of $5 million-plus, Newt had the weapons to fight back with his own negative ads. In a rage, he put them on TV and devoted his time in the debates to throwing accusations. RomneyCare. Abortion. Gay rights. The taxes Romney paid and the ones he advocated. Massachusetts moderate. No, make that Massachusetts liberal. They tripped off his tongue and his super-PAC put them on the air. Sheldon paid the bill. But Newt paid the price.
No longer was he Newt the visionary, the leader, the intellect. He was a Nixonian caricature of himself, wallowing in negatives, forsaking the chance to explain himself and his ideas for the chance to jab with attacks.
Newt needed to rebut. Newt needed to go positive. Newt did not need to go negative. He should have used Adelson’s funds to reply to Romney’s attacks and then to articulate his bold plans for his first day in office. He did not need to exchange punches with Mitt.
As Newt lost his aura, Romney surged. At times, it seemed that Gingrich was motivated more by fury — like the Spanish bull — than by ambition or strategic sense. He had lost his cool, and all could see it.
In the end, his foray into negatives raised again the specter of Newt the loose cannon, firing any negative that came to hand. Newt the destroyer who shut down the government and handed Clinton the election in 1996.
Romney pulled Newt off his game. Late on the Monday night before the primary, we had a vision of what could have been. Newt went on the “The Sean Hannity Show” and laid out a sweeping plan for his first month in office. His obvious grasp of the legislative process and the potential reach of executive action was vintage Gingrich. Where had he been all campaign? Wallowing in negative campaigning, courtesy of Romney’s strategy in playing him.