One of the more curious strategies employed by the Mitt Romney campaign has been the deployment of former Governor John Sununu as a surrogate to attack Newt Gingrich for being insufficiently conservative. Sununu makes a good surrogate in general for Romney, especially in New Hampshire, but as Byron York has been reporting, Sununu is on very shaky ground attacking Gingrich on conservatism. As chief of staff to former President George H. W. Bush, Sununu engineered the tax-hike budget deal that violated Bush’s “read my lips” pledge, which caused a conservative revolt and ended up costing Bush the election.
Gingrich publicly opposed the deal, and now blames the disagreement for Sununu’s attack:
Gingrich recalled that he warned the Bush White House not to make the deal. “I kept telling them, this is a trap, you should not raise taxes,” Gingrich told me. “And they were clever.”
I said it seemed that Sununu is still mad at Gingrich. “Oh, I think he is,” Gingrich responded. “Because it all blew up. It turns out they shouldn’t have broken their word and raised taxes. I think if you’re the engineer of a policy that blows up, you have to blame somebody other than yourself.”
“I just think to pick a fight over tax increases and breaking your word and flip-flopping, and to have [Sununu] as a spokesman for that particular campaign is an unusual choice,” Gingrich said. “But it’s their choice.”
Sununu isn’t shy about sharing his anger over Gingrich’s purported betrayal, either:
Gingrich’s position still rankles Sununu. In a recent interview with the New Hampshire Union-Leader, Sununu charged that Gingrich “reneged” on supporting Bush’s abandonment of the “read my lips” pledge. “I specifically asked Newt Gingrich if he would support it, and he said, ‘yes,'” Sununu told the paper. “The next day, for whatever reason, and nobody has ever been able to explain it to us, Gingrich decided that he was going to oppose it.”
As York notes, that’s not the recollection of Marlin Fitzwater, Bush’s spokesman, who agrees with conservatives that the deal was a “trap” and that the Bush White House fell right into it:
[Bush] knew that it’s very hard to win reelection during a recession. So he decided to roll the dice on a budget deal that would cut spending and the deficit in return for breaking his pledge on ‘no new taxes.’ The Democratic leadership of Congress had made it clear that their price for spending cuts and a better economy was a political victory for their party and Republicans accepting blame for a tax increase. The Democrats outfoxed us on two points. They understood better than we did just how much political damage would result from breaking the tax pledge. They also understood better than we did that cutting the deficit has little or no political value unless it works well and fast, resulting in more jobs and a feeling of general prosperity. That usually never happens, and when it does, it takes years.
As it turned out, one of the few people on the Republican team who understood this trap was Congressman Newt Gingrich. After the deal was reached, and the congressional leadership gathered in the Cabinet Room before going to the Rose Garden for the formal announcement, the president asked if everyone in the room was going to support the agreement. There were no voices of dissent. But when the group got up to leave for the Rose Garden, Congressman Gingrich went another direction and did not stay for the ceremony. Newt had earlier recommended a different course of action: Abandon the budget negotiations, keep the tax pledge, insist that Congress cut spending, and make a political fight out of it. It’s clear now that we should have followed his advice.
So the White House wasn’t under any illusions that Gingrich had signed onto the deal at the time. That leaves the question to who ended up being right about the deal. Fitzwater’s account gives Gingrich the nod, and given the fact that the Democrats turned the “read my lips” quote into one of their most effective attacks in 1992, most people would agree. Even if one was inclined to disagree, however, conservatives are hardly likely to take the word of the man who helped author that pledge-reneging deal that betrayed conservatives on whether the man who opposed that deal is insufficiently conservative now.
York also questions the Romney strategy:
But for Republican primary voters, the bottom line is this: A key Romney ally, Sununu, helped devise what Republicans remember as one of the most disastrous political and policy decisions ever, while Gingrich opposed it. And now Romney is relying on Sununu to make the case against Gingrich.
If anything, this argument helps Gingrich shore up his conservative credentials. Gingrich ended up fighting Democrats on budget and welfare reform after Bush’s capitulation — and ended up winning on both. This comparison will not help Romney escape the judgment that he’s another moderate who sees that kind of compromise as ideal. It prompts the question of what Romney would do if confronted by a Democratic legislature on tax hikes in exchange for gauzy promises of deficit reduction. Would he follow Sununu’s advice?