Gingrich: Why yes, I’d team up with Santorum to take down Romney

posted at 11:10 am on January 4, 2012 by Ed Morrissey

Most people would agree that Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney scored political-narrative and strategic wins in the final results of the Iowa caucuses last night.  Santorum’s stirring come-from-behind performance in the last two weeks and his almost-victory speech late last night gives him the edge as the night’s biggest winner, while Romney’s actual win and the dimunition of his most-organized competitors makes it a long-stretch win for him as well.  After that, there are mostly degrees of losing, but who ended up as the night’s biggest loser?  Rick Perry spent a ton of money in Iowa and ended up barely in double digits in a fifth-place finish, but Perry’s standing at least improved in the final weeks, as did his organization.  Michele Bachmann’s standing among voters crashed months ago, and she ended up at about where polling showed her all along, at the bottom of the field that actually and seriously competed for votes in Iowa.

The biggest loser?  Major Garrett makes a compelling case for Newt Gingrich at National Journal this morning:

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. …

“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.”

Right.

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.

Recall that Gingrich has been complaining for the last few days that he has been “Romney-boated,” a weird reference to the Swift Boat veterans in 2004 that objected to the depiction of John Kerry as a war hero.  Romney’s super-PAC ran the negative ads that Gingrich practically dared them to run, and they turned out — as Garrett notes — to have been pretty effective.  Putting aside the specific complaints that Gingrich made against Romney, what did he expect would happen if he won the nomination?  Did he think that Obama would not make these same arguments, and more like them, in a general election campaign?  This is why negative campaigning in primaries matter, and why showboating with pledges of nothing but niceness is a dangerous conceit for primary candidates.

Certainly Obama would have exploited the one attack that seems to have had the most impact: his work with Freddie Mac.  Gingrich insists that Freddie Mac paid him $1.6 million for just consulting on historic and strategic looks at lending policy, and that he did no lobbying.  I’m sure that’s true in the technical, legal sense, as Gingrich was surely smart enough to know how that would look in a later presidential campaign even without the collapse in 2008.  But no one thinks that Freddie Mac would hire a former Speaker of the House merely for his opinions on historical lending patterns.  They hired him to give themselves a little more gold-plated heft in pushing for federal policies that benefited their organization.  There’s nothing illegal about that, but it’s not a hands-off relationship no matter how much Gingrich argues to the contrary, and Obama would have a field day with that in a general election.

Garrett then points out that the disappointing fourth-place finish in Iowa will depress Gingrich’s fundraising and organizing efforts, leaving him to pursue the Obama strategy against Romney:

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.

Actually, it might toughen Romney up rather than soften him up.  Romney’s smart enough to know what the Obama playbook will be, and if Gingrich gives him a preseason scrimmage on that field, Romney can tune up his game.  That’s what primaries do — they produce better, more prepared candidates.  Romney’s real worry will be Santorum running to his right, who could benefit if all the other Not-Romneys got out of the race.  But Santorum wouldn’t be in this position at all if Gingrich had kept a lead in December and showed that he could close the deal from the front.

And speaking of which, Gingrich himself seems to recognize this in his conversation with Laura Ingraham this morning (via The Right Scoop):

Ingraham: Can you see a scenario under which the two of you [Santorum and Gingrich] would align together to try to defeat the establishment candidate, Mitt Romney?

Gingrich: Absolutely. Of course. I mean Rick and I have a 20-year friendship, we are both rebels, we both came into this business as reformers, we both dislike deeply the degree to which the establishment sells out the American people. We both think Washington has to be changed in very fundamental ways, and we have lots of things that fit together. And the thing that’s interesting is if you take the votes, you add to that Perry and Bachmann, you begin to see the size of the conservative vote compared to Romney…if you take, you know, Santorum and Perry and Bachmann and Gingrich you get some sense of what a small minority Romney really represents.

That’s true if the combined Perry-Bachmann vote in Iowa went to Santorum.  It’s less true if it went to Gingrich alone — and as I’ve already mentioned, it’s less true in South Carolina for Santorum alone and even less true in New Hampshire in either or both scenarios.  Some of those voters might be inclined to go to Romney, however.  We won’t know until the field narrows.  But shouldn’t Gingrich be making the case for himself alone at this point if he was confident of his standing in the race, rather than endorsing tag-team efforts against one other opponent?  Gingrich seems to acknowledge that Romney has become the clear front-runner in a crowded field.


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