Mitt Romney is running for president as a turnaround artist, but before he can turn around the economy he'll have to do something about his campaign. Newt Gingrich has built a huge lead over Romney in various state polls, attracting nearly double the support.
Romney had been largely ignoring Gingrich, but now his attack machine is coming on line to define Gingrich as an egomaniac whose fevered brain will hurt conservative causes. (Slate’s Jacob Weisberg made a not-dissimilar case.) Romney surrogates including former New Hampshire governor John Sununu and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie opened the attack on Wednesday, while a new Romney ad draws an implicit contrast between Romney's and Gingrich's personal lives. Press releases highlighting the differences between the two candidates on Medicare filled up Thursday morning inboxes. Talking points were issued to allies on Capitol Hill, and the Romney Super PAC started $3.1 million worth of advertisements in Iowa, some of which are likely to attack Gingrich.
You might imagine the Romney attack machine to be smooth black metal with sinister green lights, but when it booted up this week, it was more like a jalopy, starting with a belch and a cloud of black smoke.
Governor Sununu attacked Gingrich over his behavior during the 1990 budget deal in a way that was so helpful to Gingrich it is hard to remember that Sununu is working for Romney. President George H.W. Bush's 1990 budget deal is a signature failure for movement conservatives because Bush agreed to raise taxes. In the tale Sununu told, an agreement was reached and Gingrich, hearing that it included an increase in taxes, said he couldn't support it. He walked out of the White House instead of attending the press event heralding the deal. To some, this might suggest that Gingrich was impetuous and erratic. To conservatives, who are extremely fond of politicians who stick to their principles these days, this looks like a brave stand. It is an episode that shows an insider like Gingrich can claim he was an outsider, fighting for conservative principles against an accommodationist Republican administration.
By Thursday morning the Romney machine was working more smoothly. Target: Gingrich's lack of support for House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's budget and Medicare plan. Gingrich had called the plan "right-wing social engineering," which at the time caused Ryan to say: "With friends like that, who needs enemies?" In a conference call with reporters, Sununu characterized the Gingrich’s Ryan criticism as "the most self-serving, anti-conservative thing one can imagine happening." Senator Jim Talent of Missouri, who was also on the call, argued Gingrich would be a gift to Democrats, allowing them to change the subject from Obama's record. "If Speaker Gingrich is the candidate, the election is going to be about the Republican nominee, which is exactly what the Democrats want."
Democrats have already used Gingrich once before to define a Republican presidential candidate. In 1996, Bill Clinton tied Bob Dole to Gingrich and campaigned against them as a pair. In 2012, Republican voters will have to decide which candidate makes the better target for Democrats. Gingrich is notorious for his distracting comments and fits of pique, but he also knows how to fight back. Romney's reversals are legendary, and he's not very good at talking his way out of them.
The Sununu-Talent pitch was premised on the idea that Gingrich is a threat to conservatism. I asked Talent, who served with Gingrich in the House during the mid-'90s, whether the budget would have been balanced or welfare reformed without the Speaker's leadership. Talent, who repeatedly said he regretted saying negative things about Gingrich, proceeded to give Gingrich no credit at all. House Republicans did accomplish a lot, but Gingrich's erratic behavior had imperiled future progress. "You were in a situation where you would get up in the morning, and you would have the to check the newspaper, the clippings, that was before the Internet, to see what the Speaker had said that day that you were going to have to clean up after in your own district."
I asked Talent how Romney's career demonstrated conservative principles. He mentioned Romney's record as governor in Massachusetts in which he limited spending, cut regulations, and turned improved the economy.
So here we have another key question for Republican voters to weigh: greater achievement and greater headache with Gingrich—since he truly did make possible the Republican House in the ’90s, and the major accomplishments of that Congress—or modest achievement with Romney but less angst and calamity.
The other front in the Romney attack was the home front. On Wednesday, the Romney campaign released an ad in Iowa that amounted to a family photo album. It heralded Romney's 42-year marriage over a montage of photographs of Mitt as father. Great ads achieve multiple objectives. This ad helps Romney rebut the charge that he has no core. He's been faithful to his wife for 42 years and his church for longer. It also makes an unspoken contrast to Gingrich, whose commitment to marriage is measured in frequency not longevity.
In case anyone was confused, the blunt-speaking New Jersey governor Chris Christie traveled to Iowa and broke the code. Speaking for Romney at a Des Moines event, Christie was asked by an undecided Republican voter to name one thing that distinguished Romney from his opponents. Christie said he'd watched Romney interact with his children, adding, “This is a guy who is a father and a husband and loves his wife and his kids. ... When you look at candidates say, ‘Is this the kind of person who’s always going to make me proud in the Oval Office and never have to worry will embarrass America? That I’ll never have to worry will do something that will just make me ashamed?’ [Romney] just won’t.”
Perhaps Romney should be grateful to Gingrich. A time will come when Romney himself will need to stand up and assert with strength what he believes in a way that gives voters the idea that he's willing to fight and scrap for his beliefs—and that he has beliefs strong enough to inspire those actions. That would reveal to them something they haven't seen so far. This collective assault on Gingrich showed a sense of urgency from the hypercautious Romney, a sense of urgency he will need to demonstrate again if he wants to win the presidency.