Opinion: It's Newt v. The Republican Establishment

On the eve of the Florida primary for the Republican nomination for president, two items have become abundantly clear to me. First, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney dislike each other intensely, and on a personal level. The second item which piqued my attention is the manner and level with which the so-called Republican “Establishment” has joined forces to defeat Gingrich’s bid to become president in favor of Romney—this in spite of the fact that many Republicans question the depth and sincerity of Romney’s conservative bona fides.

Last week, former Kansas Senator Bob Dole, the 1996 Republican standard-bearer for president, issued a blistering open letter questioning the viability of Gingrich’s candidacy. After noting that most of the members of Congress who served with the former Speaker had failed to endorse his candidacy, Dole escalated his criticism by saying:

Gingrich had a new idea every minute and most of them were off the wall. He loved picking a fight with President Clinton because he knew this would get the attention of the press. This and a myriad of other specifics like shutting down the government helped to topple Gingrich in 1998.

All of the above statements are true—I should know, as I was the Legislative Director to then-House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (R-OH) during the entirety of Gingrich’s term as Speaker of the House. Kasich, now serving as Ohio’s governor, would return from many a leadership meeting mulling over one idiosyncratic idea or another presented by the Speaker. A great visionary and revolutionary, it was clear early on in Newt’s speakership that ideas and vision didn’t translate directly into his being a strong leader many of his fellow House Republicans wished to follow.

But Dole going public against his former colleague raised eyebrows around town last week, as that was a clear violation of Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: thou shall not speak ill of a fellow Republican. And yet, the list grows longer by the day of former Senators, members of Congress, political pundits and Republican opinion leaders who have taken to the airwaves and print to denounce the man they once cheered for in droves. How did this happen?

My take is that the Republican “Establishment” such as it is, sees a remarkable opportunity to defeat the current occupant of the Oval Office. Given the stakes of the election and that the contest will likely be a nail biter, serious concern was shared, first privately and now publicly, that Newt will blow it. That is, there are two Newts that many folks in DC have seen. The first is the brilliant visionary who talks of Republican dominance for generations to come at the national level. The second Newt is the petulant leader who sulked over his seat on Air Force One during the Clinton years, the Newt who embraced global climate change with former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) just a few years ago. And perhaps most importantly, the Newt who promised to run a positive campaign during the primary process has now turned his chase against Gov. Romney as his own personal saga of Moby Dick. This Newt, many Republicans fear, would rather destroy the Republican ship of state in his pursuit of his nemesis, rather than preserving the strength and health of the Republican brand both for this election and cycles to come. This is a risk many Republicans are unwilling to take—look for the ranks to close firmly around Gov. Romney should he prevail in Florida tomorrow.