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Gingrich vs. Romney: A Study in Contrast

It may seem hard to believe that the 2012 presidential election is still eleven months away. After almost a year of debates and campaigning, the first actual vote to pick a GOP presidential nominee has yet to be cast. It seems that the current field of GOP candidates has been around for a long time. The GOP nomination campaign, which has been widely disparaged in the media for its “weak” field, has been the source of many surprises since this summer.

The overall structure of the GOP race has been clear for some time. It has been a contest between an experienced, well-financed, but not very popular moderate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, against a variety of flawed or unknown ideological conservatives vying with Romney for the support of the activist core of the party.

Romney’s major competitive advantage against all of the conservatives is that he is widely believed to be more electible in a general election running against President Obama.

He also has the advantage of prior experience, not only as an elected official, but as a candidate. Like other successful national candidates before him, he learned many valuable lessons in his losing bid for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. He has applied those lessons to his 2012 campaign.
 
Political professionals say that he has become a much more effective campaigner and public speaker than he was 4 years ago, and has taken the time to thoroughly familiarize himself with a broad range of national issues. He is also following a much more disciplined campaign strategy, carefully choosing his battles against his opponents, and using his considerable financial resources more effectively, while using less of his own money for his second national run.

 

Romney’s positions on the issues are a double-edged sword, but his 2008 run has partially innoculated him against the doubts of many conservatives. During that campaign, there was a great deal of skepticism over the authenticity of his pro-life position, which he admits had changed since he was the governor of Massachusetts. But the single largest problem for GOP policy advocates is the similarities between his state health care reform plan and Obamacare, a similarity which the White House has used repeatedly in an attempt to discredit Republican criticisms of Obamacare.

 

After struggling with the issue earlier in the campaign, Romney settled upon an approach which combines a strong denial that the two plans are the same, combined with his pledge to do away with Obamacare completely if elected president rather than trying to fix it.

 

ROMNEY’S BUSINESS CREDENTIALS

 

Romney has more practical business experience than most of other GOP candidates in the field, which he claims makes him ideally suited to shepherd the US back to prosperity. He boasts that as a management consultant and the head of a private equity investment firm, he has extensive experience in turning around failing companies and making them profitable once again.

 

When his competitors for the GOP nomination proposed various flat tax schemes to revamp the federal tax system, Romney advocated a large number of less radical tax reforms to help jump start the economy, while deferring a total rewrite of the deeply flawed federal tax code, which he agrees is necessary, for later in his presidency.

 

Romney has also shored up his foreign policy credentials since his 2008 run. With regard to his policy toward Israel, he has been strong and consistent endorsing Israel’s right to determine its own negotiating positions with the Palestinians. He has criticized President Obama for throwing Israel “under the bus,” by demanding its compliance with Palestinian pre-conditions for resuming direct peace talks.

 

RUNNING AN ERROR FREE CAMPAIGN

 

Another advantage which Romney brings to the campaign is his durability. As the frontrunner for most of the race, he and his positions have been under constant attack by the rest of the GOP field, yet he has held up consistently under fire, controlling his emotional reactions and not making any serious mistakes.

 

In that respect, Romney has performed very well, and has maintained a suitably “presidential” demeanor.

 

Romeny’s personal life is another double-edged sword. His stable family life and his record as a devoted husband and father are certainly admirable, but his strong Mormon faith will continue to be an obstacle, especially to many evangelical Christian voters who view it as a deviant cult rather than a respectable mainstream religion.

 

He addressed the Mormon problem directly during the 2008 campaign, and many thought that he had successfully put it behind him at that time. Raised again by evangelical Christian supporters of Texas Governor Rick Perry this summer, it faded quickly when Perry’s own campaign missteps overtook the religion issue and began to dominate the headlines. However, as a practical matter, if Romney is the GOP candidate, there will be at least some Christian voters who would rather stay home than cast a ballot to elect a Mormon president, even someone who is running against President Obama.

 

WINNING OVER CONSERVATIVES

 

The Romney strategy for overcoming conservative objections to his candidacy is that if the re-election campaign looks to be close, Republican conservatives would rather see Romney as president than risk Obama’s re-election.

 

To document that claim, Romney’s campaign has pointed to the national polls, which have shown him running even or ahead of Obama in head-to-head contests. But so far, conservative GOP voters have not been convinced. As one conservative “flavor of the month” favorite after another has faded, Romney has had opportunities to build a commanding lead in the race, yet his base of support has remained stuck at about 25%. Instead of taking a second look at Romney, conservative voters have decided to put their faith in another lesser known candidate who has shown initial signs of promise.

 

So far, three of them have shot to the top of the polls and then rapidly lost their momentum. Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann was the first major disappointment of the GOP campaign, followed by Perry, who never managed to live up to his advance billing, and then Herman Cain, whose campaign, after a brief surge, has imploded. He has lost any credibility that he once had, and it appears that he is on the verge of dropping out of the race.

 

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the latest conservative to benefit from the “anybody but Romney” attitude of conservative GOP voters, and while his flaws as a national candidate have long been widely known, he also enjoys a number of advantages which might help him to escape the popularity flameouts suffered by Bachmann, Perry and Cain.

 

GINGRICH’S ADVANTAGES

 

The first advantage is that Gingrich is a known quantity on the national political stage. He has run successful national political campaigns in the past, and knows what it takes to win.

 

Gingrich’s second advantage is that he is more thoroughly acquainted with the full range of national issues, from economics to national security, than any other GOP candidate. He has therefore managed to avoid the same policy misstatements and embarrassing moments which have blemished Perry and Cain, and the occasional exaggerations which have undermined Bachmann’s credibility.

 

His third advantage is that Gingrich started off way behind, and has a certain appeal as an underdog. When he was forced to resign as House Speaker after the 1998 campaign, he was demonized by political enemies and the media as unethical. That was a long time ago. He has admitted to making serious mistakes at that time in both his political career and his personal life, and asked for forgiveness. Since then, he has largely acted as an elder statesman of the party, and won respect as a political strategist and an advocate for innovative policy ideas.

 

THE ELDER STATESMAN

 

During the early debates, Gingrich continued to act as the elder statesman, occasionally reminding his fellow candidates of Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment, not to be critical of another Republican. However, now that he is matched head-to-head against Romney, he has become much more aggressive in challenging his opponent’s conservative bona fides, and risks reviving his old political attack dog image.

 

In a radio interview this week in South Carolina, a highly conservative early primary state, Gingrich said “We think there has to be a solid conservative alternative to Mitt Romney. I’m the one candidate who can bring together national security conservatives, and economic conservatives, and social conservatives in order to make sure we have a conservative nominee.”

 

He also said, “I don’t claim to be the perfect candidate; I just claim to be a lot more conservative than Mitt Romney.”

 

Then he took his criticism of Romney to a higher level, saying, “I wouldn’t lie to the American people. I wouldn’t switch my positions for political reasons. It’s perfectly reasonable to change your position if facts change. If you see new things you didn’t see — everybody’s done that, Ronald Reagan did that. [But] it’s wrong to go around to adopt radically different positions based on your need of any one election, then people will have to ask themselves, ‘What will you tell me next time?’”

 

To be fair, Gingrich is not the first conservative to level such an accusation at Romney, but given his reputation for overly harsh political attacks, the former Speaker has to be particularly careful not to sound too shrill.

 

While Gingrich has risen from near the bottom to the top of the recent GOP polls within a month, the rest of his campaign is still far behind his opponents in the early caucus and primary states, where the voting will start in just a month.

 

GINGRICH’S LATEST COMEBACK

 

Gingrich’s campaign reached a low ebb in June, when most of his staff workers quit after he ignored their advice and went on vacation. For most of the time since then, his campaign operation in the early voting states has been virtually non-existent, and on a national level has consisted almost entirely of his very successful debate and media appearances. When his campaign fundraising picked up following the rise in his poll numbers a month ago, he started to rebuild his staff on the ground in South Carolina and New Hampshire.

 

Gingrich’s relative standing in the race has been helped by the problems of his competitors, prompting many conservatives who may have dismissed him as unelectable to give him a second look.

 

Generally, they have liked what they have seen. While Gingrich has not always taken the popular conservative line, his closely reasoned dissents on certain issues, such as whether to expel all 11 million illegal immigrants in this country today, have been consistent and, for most conservatives, non-critical.

 

GINGRICH’S IMMIGRATION STANCE

 

The discussion on immigration unfolded in last week’s CNN debate on national security issues, when CNN news anchor recalled that Gingrich had voted for a 1986 law, signed by President Ronald Reagan, that has provided an amnesty for illegal aliens as part of a program to toughen border enforcement.

 

Gingrich was careful to say that other steps must be taken before dealing with those who are already in the country illegally, including tightening border security and creating an effective guest worker program. He also said flatly that those who have come to this country illegally in recent years should be deported.

 

He then explained: “If you’ve come here recently, you have no ties to this country; you ought to go home. Period. If you’ve been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out.” Gingrich added that he was not talking about a path to US citizenship for these immigrants, only allowing them to stay here legally

 

Bachmann was quick to disagree with Gingrich on the point, followed quickly by Romney, who called Gingrich’s proposal an amnesty “magnet.” The former Massachusetts governor declared, “to say that we’re going to say to the people who have come here illegally that now you’re all going to get to stay or some large number are going to get to stay and become permanent residents of the United States, that will only encourage more people to do the same thing.”

 

PREPARED TO TAKE THE HEAT

 

But Gingrich stuck to his position, saying, “I don’t see how the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter-century. And I’m prepared to take the heat for saying let’s be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families.”

 

Gingrich’s policy would allow Republicans, for the first time in decades, to compete for the support of Hispanic voters, which today is the fastest growing demographic segment of the US population.

 

OBAMA’S CLASS WARFARE POLITICAL STRATEGY

 

This comes at the same time that leading Democrat pollsters Stanley Greenberg and Roy Teixeira are urging the Obama campaign to concede the working class white voters in this country to the Republicans and to appeal to a coalition of minority voters, including Hispanics, as well as highly educated liberal whites. This divisive strategy helps to explain the class warfare rhetoric that has been adopted by Obama and his open support for the Occupy Wall Street protesters.

 

In a Washington Post interview, Democrat Senator Charles Schumer suggested that Obama will be able to used the frustration represented by the Occupy Wall Street protesters to mobilize the support of frustrated middle class voters who have found themselves unable to maintain their standard of living and falling behind while those at the top in corporate America continue to grow richer.

 

Schumer that, “The number one fact of our political economy for the last decade is declining middle class incomes,” Schumer said. “When the American Dream is no longer a virtual certainty to most Americans, it becomes a different country…Inequality is a driving issue.” Democrats believe that they can leverage the decline in middle class income to turn the flat economy which is due to their failed policies into a winning issue in the 2012 election.

 

“Occupy Wall Street has resonance far beyond the protests,” Schumer said. “Whether middle class people agree with the protests or not, the vast majority believes that they’re part of the 99 percent and that something should be done to help them.”

 

VICTORY BY EXPLOITING ECONOMIC MISERY

 

According to a political analysis published in the New York Times, these Democrat pollsters believe that Obama could afford to lose the white vote next year by as much as 17 points, as long as he can win all of the minority group votes at the same time. They also note that in the 2008 election, Obama won by a near landslide nationwide while losing the white vote by 12 points.

 

Conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, says this strategy explains why Obama, “wants a continually poor performing economy, because he needs more dependent people; he needs even more people in pain; he needs more people on the receiving end of government goodies; he needs more votes to buy,” as outlined by the poll-based Democrat strategy for victory in 2012.

 

THE UNION LEADER ENDORSEMENT

 

One of the leading conservatives advocates which has rediscovered Gingrich is the editorial page of New Hampshire’s leading Republican newspaper, the Union Leader. There was never any chance that it would have supported Romney, and its endorsement of Gingrich was less than unequivocal, but its arguments do sum up his main attractions.

 

“We are in critical need of the innovative, forward-looking strategy and positive leadership that Gingrich has shown he is capable of providing. He did so with the Contract with America. He did it in bringing in the first Republican House in 40 years and by forging balanced budgets and even a surplus despite the political challenge of dealing with a Democratic President. A lot of candidates say they’re going to improve Washington. Newt Gingrich has actually done that, and in this race he offers the best shot of doing it again.

 

“We look for conservatives of courage and conviction who are independent-minded, grounded in their core beliefs about this nation and its people, and best equipped for the job.

 

“We don’t have to agree with them on every issue. We would rather back someone with whom we may sometimes disagree than one who tells us what he thinks we want to hear.”

 

WILL GINGRICH’S POPULARITY LAST?

 

However, the leaders of Romney’s campaign claim not to be worried. They expect the Gingrich surge to fade as quickly as those of the other short-lived conservative frontrunners, based upon Gingrich’s long history of shooting from the lip.

 

But others believe that Gingrich’s popularity might last longer, based upon the fact that at this point, there are likely to be few nasty surprises left in his background, and because he is the first conservative candidate of equal national political stature to challenge Romney.

 

There is reason to doubt whether Gingrich is as electible as Romney in a head-to-head matchup with Obama next November but there is no doubt that his presence will enliven the early GOP primaries, and that his ideas and mastery of the policy issues will challenge his opponents to keep up.

 

OBAMA’S PLANS

 

Meanwhile, the Obama campaign assumes that Romney will emerge as their opponent in the general election. It has been publicly sniping at Romney for months. Romney’s campaign has now responded in kind by directing his first campaign ad at Obama rather than his GOP competitors for the nomination.

 

Despite Obama’s still negative job approval ratings, the liberal media claims that his re-election chances next November are still good, based upon the 95-vote electoral college cushion he piled up in the 2008 election. According to Jim Rutenberg writing in the New York Times, Obama’s campaign has mapped out a national strategy for next November in which he would eke out a narrow re-election victory based upon his ability to hold onto some of the key “red” states he carried four years ago, including Virginia and North Carolina, as well as Colorado and Nevada, class warfare excuses for the still sluggish state of the economy, and generous helpings of negative attacks on Obama’s GOP opponent.

 

A lot will depend on who Obama’s GOP opponent will be. If it is Romney, then it will be interesting to see if he can respond in kind. But if the GOP candidate is Gingrich, we can expect a truly historic political battle. Gingrich would not take such attacks lying down. He could also be expected to challenge Obama’s policies with a wealth of new ideas that would shake up the Washington political establishment as he did with his “Contract With America,” which powered the GOP electoral victory in 1994.

 

In the nearer term, the Republican field will narrow as the primary season begins, and the mainstream media will have a field day attacking Gingrich. He was once their favorite political target, and they can be expected to remind voters of past criticisms of his character at every opportunity. Gingrich’s ability to withstand that test will likely determine who emerges with the GOP presidential nomination.

 

The Washington Post contributed to this story.