I admit that I wrote off Newt Gingrich months ago. I thought the Tiffany line of credit, the lack of attention to actually doing the hard work of building a political organization, the incredibly inflated ego and the baggage would doom the former Speaker.
Pundit Mark Shields summed up Newt’s baggage problem last week when he said Gingrich “has more skeltons than the Harvard Medical School lab.”
But, what do I know? Gingrich, seemingly against all odds, leads the pack heading into the first real test – and I don’t mean the Donald Trump debate – the Iowa caucus followed immediately by the New Hampshire primary.
It got me wondering if there has ever been a candidacy – or a candidate – even remotely like Newt Gingrich? Consider a few telling details.
Even has he assumes frontrunner status, Gingrich is obviously on the outs with many, many Republicans. From George Will to Meghan McCain, the “establishment” GOP loathes the guy. George Will paraphrases an old GOP icon, John Foster Dulles, in describing Newt: He’s a bull who carries around his own china shop.
Or this telling detail: Mitt Romney, the once presumed man to beat, has accumulated endorsements from 55 current members of Congress. Gingrich has seven current members signed on his team. The people who know this guy best like him the least.
Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter, Peggy Noonan calls Gingrich a “human hand grenade” and “a trouble magnet.” Gingrich, she says, is “a starter of fights that need not be fought. He is the first modern potential president about whom there is too much information.”
So, back to the question: are there any historical parallels? Is Newt a complete one-off? Interesting, I think not.
From the mid-1860’s until the 1890’s, there was a colorful, somewhat Gingirch-like character that repeatedly entered and exited American political life. Congressman, Senator, Secretary of State and ultimately presidential candidate James G. Blaine of Maine. Never heard of him? The guy was Speaker of the House and lost the presidency in 1884 to a deeply flawed Democratic opponent, Grover Cleveland.
Blaine’s candidacy – actually there were several candidacies – divided the Republican Party. The Mainer had been an enthusiastic founder of the GOP and a Lincoln man, but when he finally won the nomination in 1884, he couldn’t rally Republican support and that fact allowed Cleveland to become the lone Democrat able to ne elected president between 1856 and 1912.
Like Gingrich, “Slippery Jim” Blaine was a gifted communicator and, also like Newt, scandal seemed to follow him like a shadow. Accused of corruption related to the western expansion of the railroads, Blaine’s opponents – Republicans included – took to calling him “the Contential liar from the state of Maine.”
Defending Blaine, a supporter said, in language that might remind us of Gingrich’s stormy Congressional tenure, “James G. Blaine marched down the halls of the American Congress and threw his shining lance full and fair against the brazen foreheads of the defamers of his country and the maligners of his honor.”
Still, Blaine lost the election of 1884 – one of the closest in American history – because he lost New York state by just over 1,000 votes. The loss is generally attributed to Blaine sitting idly by while a fire and brimstone Protestant minister lashed the Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion” – references to, well, drink, Catholic support and the still bitter wounds over the Civil War. Failure to repudiate that infamous remark probably cost Blaine enough votes in then-Republican New York state to lose him the election.
Historical parallels are never perfect, but they can be instructive. In that long ago election of 1884, Blaine was a deeply flawed candidate with some nonetheless attractive attributes. He’d work his way up the system, he was a fighter and a good talker, but hardly a choice his party or the country could easily embrace. Dogged by scandal, he lost to a Democratic candidate who had been accused of, among other things, fathering a child out of wedlock. Politics were rough in those days, as well.
If Gingrich does manage to capture the Republican nomination next year it will constitute one of the most remarkable and audacious political turn arounds in American history. It may also prove, as Jim Blaine’s candidacy did in 1884, that winning a nomination, while pulling around a wagon full of baggage and in the face of so much opposition from your own party, is merely a prelude to ultimate defeat, even when you are facing a very weak opponent.
Next time, some lessons from the last truly “dark horse” candidate nominated by the Republicans. Is it still too late for a Wendell Willkie?