Newt Gingrich’s mercurial temperament has been on display since he entered the race for the GOP nomination for president. It helped him in South Carolina when in the last debate before the election, CNN’s John King asked him if he would like to comment on his second former wife’s claim in an interview with ABC that he had approached her about having an open marriage relationship. The response was classic Newt. “No,” he replied, “but I will.” Then he launched into an ad hominem attack on the mainstream media and John King. It resonated with the audience and with voters, and Gingrich won the Palmetto State primary in a landslide.
After that humiliating defeat, Romney went on the offensive. With laser-guided precision, he pummeled Gingrich in Florida with tag lines such as “unhinged” and “Dr. Newt and Mr. Hyde,” hoping that the former House speaker would lose his cool. It worked to perfection. As the Sunshine State campaign drew to a close, Romney said, “He [Gingrich] has been flailing around a bit trying to go after me for one thing or the other. You just watch it and shake your head. It has been kind of painfully revealing to watch.”
That was an apt assessment — one to which GOP voters across the nation have been gravitating slowly but surely since the Iowa caucus in early January despite Romney’s well-publicized gaffes about enjoying firing people and the poor not needing help. Romney was suggesting in a not-so-subtle way that Gingrich’s South Carolina victory was a fluke by conjuring up a mental image of the former speaker as a punch-drunk boxer staggering around the ring swinging wildly at nothing in particular and occasionally landing a punch. Romney staffers admitted “that they were pleased with how rattled Gingrich seemed to be.”
C. Edmund Wright, a copywriter and consultant for Winning Our Future, a PAC that supports Newt Gingrich and other conservative causes, described Gingrich’s Florida effort as “a childish food fight.” He said,
[F]or some inexplicable reason, he [Gingrich] wiped that campaign gold [from South Carolina] off his hands and abandoned the gold mine. He quickly returned to the tar pit of the food fight with Mitt. And it has been all downhill from there. Frankly, it was stunning to observe.
Emmett Tyrrell, founder and editor-in-chief of The American Spectator, said,
Newt lost support in his last week in Florida because conservatives gave him a closer look. Sure, we loved his one-liners singeing the tail feathers of the liberal media and politicians. Yet, we have to put someone up against President Barack Obama who can win. Moreover, we have to put someone in the White House who can govern. With Newt, we would be explaining his gyrations every few days during the campaign. And in the unlikely event that he should win, we would be spending the next four years apologizing for his extravagance.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam probably gave the most succinct appraisal of Gingrich’s Florida performance:
You know, I worked with Speaker Gingrich when I was in Washington. And I feel that his troubled past, his record, his erratic temperament, is ill-suited for the presidency. He was a great speaker, he was a revolutionary leader. But you want a real practical, conservative temperament in the White House, and I have concerns about Newt’s temper.
Dick Morris, a political guru and a former adviser to President Clinton, had a similar view:
Mitt Romney’s win in Florida reflects a basic fear voters have of nominating former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Despite his obvious brilliance, creative ideas, and stimulating turns of phrase, they worry that he will come across as too strident to voters and will cost the Republican Party the presidency.
Women in particular are concerned about Gingrich. Morris says that they “worry that his personal baggage may impair his ability to defeat Barack Obama in November” and that Romney is “the more electable of the two [candidates].” Clearly, Gingrich has a gender gap problem, and it’s probably caused by his unpredictable behavior. Whatever the cause may be, though, it would spell disaster in a general election.
Contrasting Romney and Gingrich, Yuval Levin, writing in the National Review, said,
Romney has a thoroughly executive disposition: He appears to have a very organized mind, intense discipline, a general sense of calm and restraint, and a systematic approach to everything he does.He expects change to result from a process, and so thinks about politics in terms of process. He exhibits each of these qualities to a fault. …
I think Gingrich has the intensity and the understanding of the importance of the moment that many Republican voters are looking for — he radiates a sense that the choice before us is utterly crucial and decisive…, and with regard to the coming election a lot of Republicans share that sense. I certainly do. He also of course has a record in high office that includes some impressive accomplishments during his speakership — welfare reform, the balanced budget — though also some very costly failures that seemed to flow from deficiencies in his temperament or his style of management.
On Thursday, just two days before the Nevada primary, Newt’s temperament and his campaign’s overall lack of discipline came into play again. The saga began on Wednesday, when real estate tycoon and reality TV star Donald Trump announced that he would be traveling to Nevada to make a “major announcement.” Immediately, Gingrich advisers spread the news that Trump was coming to Las Vegas to support their man, but he took the stage with Romney instead and endorsed him. With Trump at his side, Romney feigned surprise: “There are some things you just can’t imagine happening. This is one of them.” An obviously dejected Gingrich responded by saying that he hadn’t expected Trump’s endorsement and that he couldn’t “be bothered with the drama.”
Despite his strong showing in South Carolina, Gingrich hasn’t demonstrated the kind of discipline, enthusiasm, effort, and temperament that will be required to win the 2012 presidential election. According to Jack Cashill, an independent writer and producer and the executive editor of Ingram’s magazine,
Were he not running, the other candidates would likely have contented themselves with wrapping pre-packaged platitudes around debate questions, much as candidates of both parties have done in every election post-Reagan. … It also forced the survivors to hone their own speaking and debating skills. As Mitt Romney accurately argued in his Florida acceptance speech, “A competitive primary does not divide us. It prepares us.”
Cashill is correct. Gingrich has forced the other candidates, particularly Mitt Romney, to elevate their performance to a higher level. That seems to be all that GOP voters want from Newt. They are winnowing the field, and it looks as though Romney is their choice. They see him as a safer bet than Gingrich in a head-to-head showdown with President Obama. Political leanings aside, that’s what the facts suggest.