Richard Shiro/AP Photo
Cass Arble sells souvenirs before Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke at Tommy's Ham House, on Nov. 30, 2011, in Greenville , S.C.
Cass Arble sells souvenirs before Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke at Tommy's Ham House, on Nov. 30, 2011, in Greenville , S.C. Richard Shiro/AP Photo
Jonathan Cohn is a senior editor at The New Republic.
[with contributions from Matt O'Brien and Darius Tahir]
Today's New York Times article about Newt Gingrich's efforts to promote and assist various health care companies is likely just the first in a series of stories documenting the former speaker's innovative blending of politics and profit. It's also the first serious test of whether Gingrich, now the leading challenger to Mitt Romney, can do something his predecessors in that role could not: Keep the popularity surge going.
Plenty of very smart people, TNR colleagues among them, think he can't. Jonathan Bernstein makes a pretty compelling argument along those lines at the Washington Post today. (Update: And it's not as if Gingrich's opponents are going to help him. As Politico reported on Wednesday evening, Ron Paul is already out with a "lengthy, scathing" ad on Gingirch's ideological deviations and ties to industry.)
Still, I can think of three reasons why Gingrich might stick around for a while, become Romney's chief nemesis, and maybe even take the nomination (although that still seems like a remote possibility).
1. Timing. The Iowa caucuses are five weeks away. That's probably not enough time for a new anti-Romney to emerge. And even if it were, who might it be? Ron Paul? Too extreme, even for the Republicans. Jon Hunstman? Romney without the organization and cash. Rick Santorum? Actually, I've always wondered why he couldn't generate any buzz. But he's had his chance to generate support – and he obviously can't do it. So for Republicans who want anybody but Romney, Gingrich would seem to be the only option left.
2. Experience. One reason Romney has outlasted the other challengers is that he's been through this before. He knows how to run a campaign. And he knows how to survive national media scrutiny. Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain were novices – and it showed. But Gingrich is another story. He's been at national politics for longer than Romney has. And although Gingrich never ran a serious campaign for president, he did run a national campaign against the Democratic Party in 1994 – and then faced off with President Bill Clinton in a series of heated political battles that defined the rest of the decade.
3. Credibility. Gingrich has as much ideological heresy in his past as Romney. He backed the individual mandate. He's talked about climate change. He even appeared with Nancy Pelosi in a television ad. But, unlike Romney, he also has a deep, strong record of conservative politics from the 1990s.
Remember, Gingrich was talking about letting Medicare wither on the vine in the 1990s, when Paul Ryan was barely out of college. Conservatives suspect Romney is not an authentic conservative because he never acted like one before. They have no reason to believe what he says now is true. But Gingrich has a record and it's one with plenty to make conservatives happy. That may insulate him not only from charges of ideological infidelity, but also from charges of martial infidelity, among other personal or professional indiscretions.
To put it more plainly, Gingrich gives conservatives something to like — and that may be enough to offset what they don't like. It's a quality that Romney, although broadly appealing, lacks.
I make no predictions about whether Gingrich lasts beyond this week and, if so, for how long. But those three factors make me think he's got a very good shot.