Tuesday, Jun 25, 2024

Gingrich Surges; Sets off Storm

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the current frontrunner in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, set a high bar for other candidates to meet when he promised last week to shake up US Middle East policy once elected president and to pursue a much more confrontational stance against radical Islam around the world. Speaking as one of several candidates appearing before the Republican Jewish Coalition, Gingrich accused the US State Department of following a policy of appeasement in the Arab world, “based upon a pack of lies and self-deception.” He rejected the current US attitude which “says that it's always Israel's fault no matter how bad the other side is.” Gingrich's comments at the Republican Jewish Coalition were largely ignored by the general media, but an interview he gave a few days later to a Jewish cable TV channel made headlines. He said, “Remember, there was no Palestine as a state -- (it was) part of the Ottoman Empire. I think we have an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs.” He suggested that the effort by the media and the Obama administration differentiating between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority was not necessarily appropriate, because “both…represent an enormous desire to destroy Israel.”

He specifically criticized PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, for refusing to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Gingrich said, “I think it’s delusional to call it [the attempts to restart the Oslo negotiations] a peace process.”


Gingrich also castigated Obama’s “evenhandedness” as inappropriate in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, because, “if I’m evenhanded between a civilian democracy that obeys the rule of law and a group of terrorists that are firing missiles every day, that’s not evenhanded, that’s favoring the terrorists.”


Gingrich also suggested that he might be open as president to consider granting clemency to Jonathan Pollard, “if we can get to a point where I’m satisfied that there’s no national security threat, and if he’s in fact served within the range of people who’ve had a similar problem.” Pollard has been in a federal prison since 1987 after admitting that he passed US secrets to Israel in a controversial plea bargain deal that was later thrown out by the judge in the case.


After the interview, Gingrich issued a clarifying statement through his spokesman saying, “To understand what is being proposed and negotiated you have to understand decades of complex history — which is exactly what Gingrich was referencing. Newt Gingrich supports a negotiated peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which will necessarily include agreement between Israel and the Palestinians over the borders of a Palestinian state.”




Nevertheless, Gingrich’s widely publicized “invented people” comment set up howls of protest from leftist, mainstream and Arab sources. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, accused Gingrich, a college professor of history, of, “denying historical truths. . . The Palestinian people inhabited the land since the dawn of history, and intend to remain in it until the end times,” Fayyad said, adding that all Gingrich “knows about the region is the history of the Ottoman era.” He thereby implicitly admitted the former House Speaker’s point, that nobody in the Arab world recognized the existence of any sense of Palestinian peoplehood before Israel declared its independence in 1948.


PLO spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, in a Voice of Palestine radio interview, accused Gingrich of appealing to “ignorance and bigotry” as “a cheap way to win [the] pro-Israel [Republican] vote.”


Israeli Cabinet minister Uzi Landau said Gingrich was “right.” He noted that Palestinians do not have their own language or culture, and are really part of the broader Arab world. Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that Landau was speaking for himself and that his comment did not represent official government policy. He declined to add any comment on Gingrich’s statements because they were part of an “internal American political campaign.” However, Likud MK Danny Danon said that Gingrich “understands very well the reality we live in the Middle East.”




The White House declined to comment directly on Gingrich’s interview, but a recent comment to the New York Times by David Axelrod, Obama’s top re-election strategist, indicates that Gingrich may soon join Romney as a target of White House criticism. Axelrod said, “look, for the longest time, Gingrich was not really a factor in this race, he was left for dead at the checkout counter at Tiffany’s. Now he is resurgent and he could be the nominee.”


Last week, the senior Democrat to comment on Gingrich’s interview was Senator Carl Levin, of Michigan. He called his remarks “divisive and destructive. . . Gingrich is wrong to think his attempt to turn the Palestinians into a non-people with no claim to a state will appeal to his Jewish audience,” Levin said. “The vast majority of American Jews, including this one, and the Israeli Government itself are committed to a two-state solution in which Israelis and Palestinians live side-by-side as neighbors and in peace. Gingrich offered no solutions — just a can of gasoline and a match.”


Gingrich’s Palestinian comment became the subject of a question to the field of GOP candidates at an ABC network debate in Iowa over the weekend. Former Clinton White House staffer turned ABC anchorman George Stephanopoulos asked Ron Paul whether he agreed with Gingrich’s characterization of the Palestinians as “an invented people.” Paul obliged by giving Stephanopoulos the answer he clearly wanted, by saying, “No, I don’t agree with that. And that’s just stirrin’ up trouble. I believe in a non-interventionist foreign policy,” but then Paul reminded himself that, “technically and historically, yes– you know, under the Ottoman Empire, the Palestinians didn’t have a state, but neither did Israel have a state then too.” Paul then went on to explain, that in his opinion, the fate of Israel and the Palestinians is not America’s concern.




When Stephanopoulos finally turned to Gingrich, he challenged the former House speaker with Erekat’s criticism that his characterization of the Palestinians as an invented people would be used as a recruiting tool by Islamic terrorists.


Gingrich’s response was, “how would we know the difference” between Palestinians like Erekat who reject Israel’s legitimacy and other Arab terrorists. Gingrich defended his position by asking, “Is what I said factually correct? Yes. Is it historically true? Yes. Are we in a situation where every day, rockets are fired into Israel while the current [US] administration, tries to pressure the Israelis into a peace process?”


Gingrich noted that, “Hamas does not admit the right of Israel to exist, and says publicly, ‘Not a single Jew will remain.’ The Palestinian Authority ambassador to India said last month, ‘There is no difference between Fatah and Hamas. We both agree Israel has no right to exist.’


“Somebody oughta have the courage to tell the truth: These people are terrorists. They teach terrorism in their schools. They have textbooks that say, ‘If there are 13 Jews and nine Jews are killed, how many Jews are left?’ We [the US people] pay for those textbooks through our aid money. It’s fundamentally time for somebody to have the guts to stand up and say, ‘Enough lying about the Middle East.’”




When Romney was asked about Gingrich’s comment, he could not deny its accuracy. Instead, after some fumbling, Romney suggested that Gingrich was doing Israel a disservice by publicly getting ahead of the Israeli government position on the issue of whether to support a Palestinian state


After criticizing Obama’s public suggestion that Israel agree to go back to its pre-67 borders, Romney added, “Israel does not want us to make it more difficult for them to sit down with the Palestinians. Ultimately, the Palestinians and the Israelis are gonna have to agree on how they’re gonna settle the differences between them. And the United States should not jump ahead of Bibi Netanyahu and say something that makes it more difficult for him to do his job.” Romney also admitted that the US needs to tell the truth, but criticized Gingrich for using what he called, “incendiary words.”


Gingrich responded by noting that, “The Israelis are getting rocketed every day. We’re not making life more difficult. The Obama administration’s making life more difficult. The fact is, the Palestinian claim to a right of return is based on a historically false story. Somebody oughta have the courage to go all the way back to the 1921 League of Nations mandate for a Jewish homeland, point out the context in which Israel came into existence, and “Palestinian” did not become a common term until after 1977. This is a propaganda war in which our side refuses to engage. And we refuse to tell the truth when the other side lies.”


He then added, “I didn’t speak for the people of Israel. I spoke as a historian who’s looked at the world stage for a very long time. I’ve known Bibi since 1984. I feel quite confident an amazing number of Israelis found it nice to have an American tell the truth about the war they are in the middle of and the casualties they’re taking and the people who surround them who say, ‘You do not have the right to exist, and we want to destroy you.’”


Romney persisted in criticizing Gingrich for saying that the Palestinians are an invented people as too provocative, even if it is accurate. He declared that, as president, “before I made a statement of that nature, I’d get on the phone to my friend Bibi Netanyahu and say, ‘Would it help if I said this? What would you like me to do? Let’s work together, because we’re partners.’”




Gingrich rejected that approach. He said, “I think sometimes it is helpful to have a president of the United States with the courage to tell the truth, just as was Ronald Reagan who went around his entire national security apparatus to call the Soviet Union an evil empire and who overruled his entire State Department in order to say, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.’ Reagan believed the power of truth restated the world and reframed the world. I am a Reaganite, I’m proud to be a Reaganite. I will tell the truth, even if it’s at the risk of causing some confusion sometimes with the timid.”


The moderator then turned to candidates Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry to choose between the positions taken by Gingrich and Romney, Bachmann dodged the issue, reciting her pro-Israel bona fides. But she agreed with Gingrich’s assertion that the Palestinian Authority is determined to destroy Israel. Santorum waffled, declaring his support for Israel’s claim to the West Bank and leaving the decision about what to do with Palestinians up to them. Finally, Perry tried to change the topic completely, ignoring the question about the Palestinians and condemning Obama’s Middle East policy for failing to deal effectively with Iran.




Gingrich presented a much more detailed outline of his approach to foreign policy a few days earlier in his speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition. Gingrich called the current US State Department “incompetent.” When he announced that if elected president, he would appoint the outspoken Bush-era conservative diplomat John Bolton as Secretary of State, the audience cheered. He said he would give Bolton a mandate to “completely replace the whole State Department foreign service culture with a new entrepreneurial and aggressive culture dedicated to the proposition that defending freedom and defending America is the first business of the State Department, not appeasing our opponents.”


Gingrich told the Jewish Republicans that the Judeo-Christian civilization is “morally disarmed by a State Department incapable of articulating the cause of freedom.” He foresees a “long struggle with radical Islamists” yet today the US is “where we were in 1946 with regard to the Soviet empire.” He sees a necessity for the US to state clearly that the radical Islamists are “mortal enemies who are determined to kill us.”




Instead, Gingrich says, the Obama administration has “set up a morally indefensible one sided conversation” in which it assumes that the US and its allies, like Israel, are always wrong, and the Muslims, regardless of how outrageous their conduct may be, must be appeased. Gingrich cited the hypocrisy in the fact that two weeks ago, Secretary of State Clinton publicly complained about “discrimination” against women in Israel because they are expected to ride in the back of buses in religious neighborhoods, but then went to meet with Saudi leaders, whose strict repression of women in Saudi society is far more extreme, and said nothing about it.


Gingrich promised the Jewish Republicans that on the day he is inaugurated as president, he will transfer the US embassy in Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim. He said that as president he would use covert action against Iran to destabilize the regime, since he believes that it is likely too late to stop it from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability through sanctions. He proposes to support the pro-democracy demonstrators in Iran whom Obama abandoned in 2009. He also suggested that the Iranian regime might be vulnerable to an attack on the country’s sole gasoline refinery.


Gingrich also recommended covert action against Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. He admitted that the instability that would result from deposing Assad could be dangerous, but suggested that whoever assumes power there after Assad’s fall could hardly be worse. He suggested that the loss of Syria as a regional ally would be seen as a major setback for Iran, and was therefore worth the risk.




Meanwhile, analysts pronounced Gingrich the overall winner of the Iowa debate because he successfully withstood the attacks by Romney and his other GOP opponents.


Romney also won generally high marks for his calm, consistent performance, stating his positions on issues clearly and turning aside attacks by his opponents. Some media critics sought to make an issue out of his challenge to Rick Perry, offering to bet $10,000 that Perry’s distortion of Romney’s health care record was inaccurate. The bet challenge was, at worst, a strategic gambit on Romney’s part that didn’t work as well as he had hoped. It was not at all comparable to the major blunders and misstatements which have seriously damaged Perry’s credibility.


The bet was notable only because, from a technical and strategic point of view, Romney’s campaign so far has been virtually flawless. He remains a serious, credible, well-prepared and effective candidate. Romney clearly outclasses everyone else in the GOP field, except for Gingrich, who was able to seize the momentum as Herman Cain’s candidacy self-destructed, and now holds a commanding lead in the latest nationwide and early voting state polls.


Earlier in the race, Romney was able to maintain his status as the moderate frontrunner, largely ignoring the surges by conservative rivals Perry and Cain. The strategy proved correct when Perry and Cain were unable to stand the close scrutiny and pressures that come with the leadership position in the polls.


But Gingrich is a much more formidable opponent. To halt his growing momentum, the Romney campaign has changed its tactics. Earlier, Romney largely ignored his opponents in order to engage with Obama. But now he is using surrogates with old political grudges against Gingrich going back 20 years, to attack him. His campaign is seeking to raise doubts about whether the former House Speaker has the proper temperament to be the GOP presidential nominee.




The sharpest attacks on Gingrich have come from John Sununu, a former New Hampshire governor and former White House chief of staff for George H.W. Bush. Sununu charged that Gingrich wraps himself “in mantles of grandeur with Churchill and Reagan,” and tends to shoot from the hip, spouting ideas that he has not yet completely worked through. However, Sununu said, when a president makes decisions in the White House Oval Office, “you don’t try and be a professor, sitting at the front of the room. You try to deal with things after you’ve thought about them.”


Sununu told The Wall Street Journal: “Listen to just about anyone who worked alongside Gingrich and you will hear that he’s inconsistent, erratic, untrustworthy and unprincipled.”


The bad blood between Sununu and Gingrich goes back to 1990, when the two clashed over George H. W. Bush’s decision to go back on his no new taxes pledge. Gingrich, who was then House Minority Leader, claims that he never agreed to the move, while Sununu insists that he did. In the end, voter disappointment with that decision wound up undermining Bush’s re-election bid against Bill Clinton in 1992.


Another old Gingrich enemy within the GOP who has been recruited to trash the former speaker is Jim Talent, who served with Gingrich in the House from 1993 through 1999. He told reporters that Gingrich is, “not a reliable and trusted leader.”


Senator Tom Coburn, who won his first term in Congress as part of the Gingrich-led 1994 GOP victory called his leadership while he was speaker “lacking.”




While Romney has yet to attack Gingrich’s record himself, his campaign coordinated the statements by these Gingrich critics to the press, in what has become a well-organized media campaign to tarnish Gingrich’s formidable record of accomplishments during his years as House Speaker.


Bob Walker, a former Pennsylvania congressman and longtime Gingrich ally who debated Sununu on a nationally broadcast news interview program on Sunday blamed the Romney campaign for the flurry of attacks on Gingrich.“Most of the people that you’ve heard from are a part of the Romney group of attack dogs that they have sent out,” Walker said.


Gingrich’s outstanding performance during the GOP debates has kept his candidacy alive during some rocky periods earlier this year and then powered his recent climb in the polls. Walker attributes Gingrich’s media skills to his experience in the House using the live C-SPAN broadcasts of Congressional debates to reach beyond the media directly to the American people. “I think at least part of it would go back to the days when he was debating on the House floor,” Walker said.




Gingrich used C-SPAN as a platform to project the energized and combative message of his conservative caucus to challenge the long-dominant House Democrat majority in the 1980’s and early 1990’s in an early demonstration of the political power of television messaging.


Under Gingrich’s leadership, a group of young GOP congressmen called the Conservative Opportunity Society, used the C-SPAN telecasts to attack the Democrats for their profligate spending habits and disregard for the budget deficit in debates on the House floor that often lasted well into the night. It didn’t matter, in Gingrich’s view, whether anyone else was in the House chamber to hear the Republican points. Their real audience was the political activists watching at home on C-SPAN.


“While you might have an empty chamber, you always had somewhere between, our guess was, 50,000 and 300,000 or 400,000 homes at one time,” Gingrich said in 1999.


According to Steve Frantzich, a professor of political science at the US Naval Academy who has written a book on the influence of C-SPAN, “perhaps the key element is that Gingrich realized that the size of the audience is perhaps less important than the composition. . . He realized that the C-SPAN audience was small but active — contributing to campaigns, endorsing candidates.”


Today, Gingrich still frequently credits the activists he first reached through C-SPAN for laying the foundation for the historic Republican victory in 1994, which made him House Speaker.




However, less partisan veteran Republicans still express some concern about Gingrich’s volatile political history and his current ability to stand up to the pressure of a presidential campaign in the long run.


Former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote in her weekly Wall Street Journal column that Gingrich is “the first modern potential president about whom there is too much information.”


Noonan notes that over his long career, there have been many comments about Gingrich, both good and bad, and “that’s the problem with Newt Gingrich: It’s all true. It’s part of the reason so many of those who know him are anxious about the thought of his becoming president. . .


“Ethically dubious? True. Intelligent and accomplished? True. Has he known breathtaking success and contributed to real reforms in government? Yes. Presided over disasters? Absolutely. Can he lead? Yes. Is he erratic and unreliable as a leader? Yes. Egomaniacal? True. Original and focused, harebrained and impulsive–all true.”




She notes that Gingrich freely admits to having made mistakes, including some big ones in his personal life for which he has publicly asked for forgiveness. But he also has a solid record of historic accomplishment, including the passage of welfare reform in 1996 and the balanced budgets of the Clinton era. He is intellectually versatile enough to back the conservative economic demands of the Tea Party while promoting a relatively moderate immigration reform plan.


As Noonan notes, “One way to view this is that he is so rich and varied as a character, as geniuses often are, that he contains worlds, multitudes.” Another way to view it is that he is an opportunist, with no root political beliefs, as his enemies claim. However, the positions which Gingrich has taken in this campaign are so detailed and specific that if elected president, he would be politically obligated to carry them out or risk the kind of severe political backlash which has hobbled Obama. Gingrich is too good a historian not to recognize that. To the extent that he has left himself very little wiggle room, his policies seem to be locked in.


Yet there is always the chance that Gingrich could let his success go to his head and self destruct with a careless comment once he has the GOP nomination locked up. That is a fear which even his strongest supporters admit is real, based upon past performances. However, the strong attraction of Gingrich’s brilliant ideas and strategic analysis is hard for many Republican voters and activists to resist. This is especially true in contrast to his comparatively lackluster GOP opponents for the nomination, with the possible exception of Romney. The former Massachusetts governor is both substantial and attractive as a presidential candidate, but he is much less inspiring than Gingrich, and comes with his own set of flaws and political vulnerabilities.




Romney left the debate in Des Moines, Iowa on Motzoei Shabbos for a town hall meeting in New Hampshire. The state’s first in the nation January 10 primary has become a must win for him in the face of Gingrich’s surging strength in Iowa and across the country.


With less than three weeks until the Iowa caucuses, Gingrich has opened up a double digit lead over Romney in the latest statewide polls. Romney is in danger of slipping to third behind radical libertarian Ron Paul. Romney remains ahead of Gingrich in New Hampshire, though his margin has shrunk in the latest statewide polls to about 10 points, and he is now seen as vulnerable there.


Romney, as the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, and the winner of the New Hampshire primary in 2008, had been expected to carry the state easily. Gingrich’s lead in Iowa, as well as his even larger leads in South Carolina and Florida where the last two January primaries will be held, means that Romney will need to score an impressive victory in New Hampshire to break Gingrich’s momentum.


A closer look at the polling results in South Carolina has more bad news for Romney. More Republicans see Gingrich as an acceptable candidate, and more Republicans have serious doubts about Romney’s acceptability as a GOP standard bearer. That would seem to indicate that even if Gingrich were to stumble, many conservative voters will continue to resist accepting Romney as their candidate, even though, at that point, they may not have much choice.




Time is fast running out for the other candidates who are hoping that Gingrich will self-destruct before the voting begins next month.


In last week’s debate, Bachmann, Paul and Santorum challenged Gingrich’s credentials as a true GOP conservative. Bachmann, in particular, tried to lump him together with Romney, whose conservative credentials have long been suspect, referring to the two frontrunners as “Newt Romney.”


However, even those who cite significant variations from conservative orthodoxy in Gingrich’s record on key issues such as immigration and health care reform still acknowledge his historic role in leading House Republicans to victory in the 1994 midterm election on the strength of his conservative “Contract with America” platform. They also recognize his subsequent accomplishments as Speaker in eliminating the federal deficit and creating millions of jobs, the two top goals for today’s fiscal conservative critics of Obama’s policies.


In broadcast interviews, Bachmann said that “it’s clear there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between them [Romney and Gingrich],” and, “they’re both from the same mold;” Santorum said that both Romney and Gingrich agree with Obama and his record. But that is likely to be a tough sell with Republicans who look up to Gingrich, for all of his admitted faults, as one of the party’s most brilliant and accomplished political strategists.




Texas Governor Rick Perry has been trying to capitalize on a bitter exchange with Romney in the debate, in which Perry declined Romney’s challenge to accept a $10,000 bet in an argument between them over what is written in Romney’s book about health care. Perry has repeatedly lied about it, and in the debate Romney jokingly said that he was willing to bet Perry that his claim is a fib.


Perry’s campaign has been spinning the incident as proof that Romney is too far out of touch with ordinary voters, most of whom would never dream of making such a large bet.


Romney’s campaign has tried to turn the incident around, suggesting that Perry declined to take the bet because he knew that his health care accusation was not true. Romney’s chief strategist, Stuart Stevens, argued that challenging Perry by offering the bet was a clever move by his candidate, saying, “Perry gets up there, and he lies every time in these debates, and he says something he knows is not true. . . . [this time, Romney said,] If you believe it, stand up for it, and he backed down.”


Perry has never recovered from the series of gaffes which he made in the early debates and other public appearances which have badly damaged his credibility and turned him into an object of ridicule. Unfortunately, every time Perry tries to make a comeback in the campaign, he has a tendency to publicly utter another inaccuracy which the media highlights, reviving the impression that he is not really familiar enough with the issues to be president.




This brings us back to Gingrich, the “flavor of the week” who is peeking at just the right time. He is now unavoidable at the top of the polls as the caucuses and primary voting is about to begin. His command of the issues is unmatched, and he is eager to go head to head in debates against Obama. The big question is whether he has learned enough from his past mistakes to exercise the self control necessary to avoid repeating them. Nobody knows about that, not even the candidate himself. Only time will tell.




Walking the Walk Have you ever had the experience of recognizing someone in the distance simply by the way they walk? I have, many times.

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