By: Bill Schneider
February 2, 2012
Newt Gingrich thinks he’s Ronald Reagan and 2012 is 1976.
In 1976, Reagan ran a tough, scrappy primary campaign. It was a conservative insurgency against President Gerald Ford, the titular but unelected leader of the Republican Party.
Reagan never gave up — even after he lost Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida and Illinois. South Carolina did not have a Republican primary in 1976. Reagan came back to life by winning North Carolina in late March. He then started winning the late Southern and Western primaries. It was not enough to defeat Ford, but Reagan went all the way to the Republican convention.
In 1976, the conservative base was in revolt against the party establishment — Ford, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger — mostly over foreign policy. Conservatives hated détente. Ford lost the 1976 election narrowly to Jimmy Carter. Reaganites took over the Republican Party and won the nomination four years later.
In Florida Tuesday night, the former House speaker conceded nothing. “It is now clear,” Gingrich said, “that this will be a two-person race between the conservative leader, Newt Gingrich, and the Massachusetts moderate.” He was contemptuous of the Republican Party establishment, promising to run “a people’s campaign, not a Republican campaign.”
Was that a veiled threat to run as an independent if he loses the Republican nomination? Could be. How’s this for a threat? “This is a future we ask you to join us in imposing on the establishment in Washington and imposing it on both parties.” Threatening to “impose” your views is not a good way to win people over.
Reagan never did that. The former California governor tried to win over the Republican establishment in 1976 by announcing his choice of Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker, a moderate Republican, as his running mate.
In 1980, Reagan made peace with the party establishment, first by offering Ford a place on his ticket and then by settling for another establishment running mate, George H.W. Bush.
Gingrich lost Florida decisively because Republicans thought he was unelectable. Too many voters just don’t like him. The ABC News-Washington Post poll has measured the American public’s view of Gingrich 21 times since 1994. In every case, negative opinion has outweighed positive. Last week, it was 51 percent unfavorable and 29 percent favorable.
Why don’t people like Gingrich? Shall we say, he is not known for his generosity of spirit. Unlike Reagan. Gingrich didn’t even congratulate Romney on his victory in Florida. To a lot of voters, the idea of Gingrich with nukes is pretty scary.
It is true that the conservative base of the Republican Party is in a state of insurrection. That’s why South Carolina voted for Gingrich. But it’s not Gingrich’s movement. It’s the tea party movement. It was there long before Gingrich grabbed its banner. The insurrectionaries auditioned other candidates — Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Sen. Rick Santorum, Herman Cain — before they settled, uneasily, for Gingrich.
Gingrich is desperate to get Santorum out of the race so he can go mano a mano with Romney. But there are two problems. First, it is not clear Gingrich would beat Romney in a two-man race. In Florida, self-described conservatives and tea party supporters went narrowly for Romney.
Second, Republican Party rules require that delegates be awarded proportional to the vote until April. Florida, which awarded its delegates winner-take-all to Romney, was an exception.
So primaries are a killing field. They’re supposed to kill off candidates and get their bodies off the field. Proportional representation, however, keeps dead candidates alive. They can keep on winning delegates week after week. That’s why Santorum and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) won’t get out of the race. They want to play a role in the convention.
Suppose Romney gets the nomination and defeats President Barack Obama. Gingrich wants to be the leader of the not-so-loyal conservative opposition. He would hold President Romney’s feet to the fire, to guard against any deviation from conservative principle. And what if Romney were to waver and make deals with Democrats — the way he did as governor of Massachusetts? Gingrich would challenge him for renomination in 2016.
And if Romney gets the nomination and loses to Obama? That would be a profound shock to Republicans. It would mean they threw away their best chance in years to take over everything — the White House, the Senate and retain the House. Recriminations would ensue. And Gingrich would be the chief recriminator.
Gingrich warned Republicans on Tuesday night, “If [Obama] can have a record this bad,” he said, “unemployment this bad, deficits this bad, policies this bad, gasoline prices this high and still get reelected, you can’t imagine how radical he’ll be in his second term.”
In nominating Romney, Gingrich was saying, Republicans would be allowing that to happen. But Gingrich would be there to pick up the pieces and purify the Republican Party.
Didn’t Reagan do that after Ford lost in 1976?
Message to Gingrich: It won’t work. He is not nearly as likable as Reagan. Or as popular. Or as pragmatic. Reagan made peace with the party establishment. Remember his 11th commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican”? Gingrich has called Romney a liar and a cheat and a “liberal” and has accused him of suppressing religious freedom and trying to buy the election.
The Republican Party establishment did not hate Reagan. It rallied around Ford in 1976 because he was the president, and they feared Reagan was too conservative to get elected. Which was probably true in 1976.
The party establishment really doesn’t like Gingrich. Former Senate majority leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole has called Gingrich “a one-man band who rarely took advice.” He warned that a Gingrich nomination “could result in a landslide victory for Obama and a crushing defeat for Republicans.’’ Sen. John McCain has said, “We ought to send Newt Gingrich to the moon.”
Bottom line? Gingrich is not Reagan. And 2012 is not 1976.
Bill Schneider is the Omer L. and Nancy Hirst professor of public policy at George Mason University and a resident scholar at Third Way.