As Newt Gingrich harnesses the populist anger of the base to propel him past Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential race, a growing chorus of powerful figures in the party is scrambling to break his stride before he runs away with the nomination.
Their fears about having Newt at the top of the ticket have less to do with the ex-Speaker’s legendary impulsiveness and indiscipline – as unsettling as they are – than his core political beliefs.
Newt, they charge, is simply no Conservative.
Indeed, someone who has spent more than three decades in Washington dreaming up ever more grandiose (his term) ideas about how to use the state to shape economic and social outcomes with taxpayer dollars hardly meets the American definition of a conservative.
How did someone so enamoured of government become the Tea Party favourite?
“He has found his key for the hustling conservative electorate. He is playing the liberal media card and saying he embodies conservative values,” R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr., editor-in-chief of the right-wing American Spectator, writes in a scathing critique.
“Newt is hoping conservatives suffer amnesia. Possibly some do… He is a huckster, and I for one will not be rendered a contortionist trying to defend him. I did so in his earliest days and learned my lesson.”
Mr. Romney himself embraced the “Newt is not conservative” line of attack in Thursday’s debate in Jacksonville, Fla., going after Mr. Gingrich for promising hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending at every campaign stop in early primary states.
Mr. Gingrich has pledged federal aid for a new veterans’ hospital in New Hampshire, an interstate highway in South Carolina and port expansions in Charleston and Jacksonville.
Those projects are plebian by Mr. Gingrich’s standards. So, he came up with the idea of a building a U.S. lunar colony by 2020. The pledge is aimed at residents of Florida’s so-called Space Coast, who have been reeling from recent cuts to NASA.
“Look, this idea of going state to state and promising what people want to hear, promising billions, hundreds of billions of dollars to make people happy, that’s what got us into the trouble we’re in now,” Mr. Romney said. “We’ve got to say no to this kind of spending.”
Mr. Gingrich defended his promises, even adding he would ante up federal money for a restoration project in Florida’s Everglades: “I thought we were a country where one of the purposes of candidates going around was to actually learn about the states they campaigned in, and actually be responsive to the needs of the states they campaigned in.”
How this squares with Mr. Gingrich’s depiction of himself as the “true Reagan conservative” in the race and Mr. Romney as the “timid Massachusetts moderate” baffles the right-wing intelligentsia.
Mr. Gingrich’s contention that he was Mr. Reagan’s comrade-in-arms in defeating communism has sparked ridicule. (Again on Thursday night, Mr. Gingrich said Nancy Reagan once told him that “Ronnie’s torch” was being passed to him.)
Of course, being a Reaganite and being a conservative are not the same thing. As a young congressman, Mr. Gingrich opposed Mr. Reagan’s expansion of the defence budget, which arguably made him more conservative than the icon of American conservatism.
The single reference to Mr. Gingrich in Mr. Reagan’s diaries – a telling indication of how prominently the then-future Speaker figured in the Gipper’s mind – is a charge that Mr. Gingrich’s ideas would “cripple our defence program.”
“Mr. Gingrich voted with the president regularly, but equally often spewed insulting rhetoric at Reagan, his top aides, and his policies to defeat Communism,” Elliott Abrams, an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration, writes in the National Review.
“Gingrich was voluble and certain in predicting that Reagan’s policies would fail, and in all of this he was dead wrong.”