Liking Newt, Warts and All

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Recap from It's a Free Country.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Georgia-based conservative columnist and author of Paranoid Nation: The Real Story of the 2008 Fight for the Presidency, Matt Towery, and contributing editor for Newsweek Magazine, Eleanor Clift, talked about the resurgence of Newt Gingrich's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

The campaign everyone counted out

Herman Cain was doing just fine until the elephants walked into the room: aimlessness when it came to foreign policy, amnesia when it came to accusations of sexual misconduct. A scandal, a series of missteps, and the public flowering of Cain's general weirdness sunk his campaign.

If that's all it takes to kill a shot at being the Republican presidential nominee, we shouldn't even be talking about Newt Gingrich. Indeed, mere months ago, almost nobody thought we would be talking about him. That the current ascendant Republican hopeful is a man whose campaign was evacuated by his staff earlier this year, whose career as Speaker of the House ended in an embarrassing resignation, who once secured tax subsidies for pet conservative organizations all while denouncing excessive taxation, who left two wives for women with whom he was having affairs, who has suspect paychecks from Fannie and Freddie and an exorbitant bill from Tiffany's, who once appeared in a commercial with Nancy Pelosi talking about how climate change is a real problem...that the current Republican hotness has managed to rise above all that and more is, frankly, shocking.

What keeps Newt afloat while similar stories—sometimes comparably bland—torpedo other campaigns? Eleanor Clift could think of two reasons that voters just don't mind.

One, they don't remember or are too young and they don't know anything about this long list; or two, they're willing to overlook it because they just see him as a historic figure, and he creates excitement, and they would love to see a cage match between him and President Obama. They're so confident in his intellectual agility that they think the debates can decide the general election just as they're deciding the primary.

Who remembers GOPAC?

Rick Perry was done in by a string of poor debate performances. Michele Bachmann sort of made up that whole thing about the crying woman and the HPV vaccine. Cain was further undermined by the infamous "Libya answer." Then he responded to a post-mortem on the "Libya answer" by simply shaking his head, smiling, and saying, "Nine, nine, nine!"

Gingrich doesn't have these flubs, and he's able to confront questions about past dalliances, personal and professional. Matt Towery said it also doesn't hurt that most of these blemishes are ancient in political years.

When people don't have food to eat, don't have clothes, don't have homes, we're in real trouble...This country has had a long history of letting things go down the tubes over the last 20 years.

"And in that context, who remembers GOPAC?" Brian Lehrer asked. Be honest: do you need to Google GOPAC?

Marianne Clift echoed Towery.

He's the only speaker in history to have faced that. It's a terrible blemish; but in the context of today's politics, the fact that Congress is an institution that a lot of Republican primary voters would get rid of, I think he can get past that.

The Not-Mitt

Not only is it surprising that we're talking about Newt in spite of all his baggage: we're talking about him when there's another guy on the stage that looks a lot cleaner and polls high consistently.

But Newt's baggage may harm him less than Mitt Romney's lack of "street cred," as Clift put it, harms the usual front-runner. Towery also pointed out that there's an unexpected degree of warmth from the former that's lacking in the latter.

Mitt Romney is also cold. He's a control freak, and those who know him know that. Gingrich, on the other hand, used to be cold and he's not anymore. He's a very nice, kind person. I don't know what happened. It's kind of like the Grinch who stole Christmas: I don't know where he got his heart, but he got one.

Bottom line, as a conservative, Towery would rather see Gingrich win the primary over Romney—not necessarily for the heart, but for that "intellectual agility."

Gingrich knows more about federal government than Barack Obama does. Period.

Getting past the warts

At first, it seems strange that Towery's backing the man about which he said, "He's a very nice, kind person...I don't know where he got a heart, but he got one."

It also seems strange that Towery would back the man who used to work for him, briefly, which he described sarcastically as a "lovely experience."

He didn't do anything. I couldn't get him to do anything. He would pontificate and eat and come to meetings and people loved being around him, but I couldn't get Newt to figure out what we were going to do.

Like an increasing number of Republican voters, Towery seems able to get past the warts on Newt, even the ones he was personally privy to and that the electorate might not know about. Towery's even able to grant Newt some leniency on the whole cheating-on-his-second-wife thing, as he does not have the nicest things to say about Marianne Gingrich.

If I ever ran across someone like her who was married to a congressman and doing the kind of things she was doing, I think I would have jumped out of a building...She was not a bad lady in the sense that she was mean or anything like that, but if you think there are moral problems with Newt Gingrich, go meet Marianne Gingrich.

'Everyone in Washington has a story about Newt Gingrich'

The baggage might not matter that much, and it might matter even less as voters get to know this new, nicer Newt. But both guests cautioned that you never know what else might come out as Gingrich goes back under the microscope.

Eleanor Clift: We're both pro-Gingrich, there are a lot of good qualities, but we're both skeptical.

Matt Towery: We both have ridden this rodeo many times before.

Clift: Everybody in Washington has a story about Newt Gingrich.