For a candidate who talks about being nice to his opponents, Newt Gingrich sure knows how to make them suffer. Today, when Mitt Romney suggested Gingrich return the $1.6 million he was paid by Freddie Mac, the former speaker shot back that Romney should return the money he earned “from bankrupting companies and laying off employees” as a venture capitalist. When asked about Michele Bachmann's critique of his immigration position, former college professor Gingrich compared her to a dumb student . "Occasionally I'd have a student who couldn't figure out where things were, or what things were, or what the right date was. When that happens, you feel sorry that they're so factually challenged."
To be fair, these aren't attacks. They're counterattacks, but Gingrich offers them with such ease, speed, and force, it's as if his earlier pledge of restraint was just a way to rope-a-dope his rivals into thinking he wouldn’t retaliate. Gingrich's opponents seem sure that attacking him is a smart and necessary strategy, since he’s at least 15 points ahead in three of the four first primary contests. But the cumulative effect of these attacks may not be to weaken him but to provide a stage for his fighting side. And showing his eagerness to mix it up may well help him in a year when Republicans are fixated on defeating the incumbent.
In Saturday's debate in Iowa, Gingrich's opponents explained why they were in the best position to run against Barack Obama. But while the other candidates talked about being able to take it to Obama, Gingrich showed how he would do it by parrying the attacks. When Romney called Gingrich a career politician, Gingrich shot back that Romney would have been one too if he'd been good enough to beat Ted Kennedy for his Senate seat.
Gingrich varies the nature and style of his counterstrikes. He can affect mock astonishment: "I’m a little surprised that that Gov. Romney’s idea of an effective attack is to suggest that breaking your word to raise taxes is a good idea. So you might ask Gov. Romney: Will he agree that you should break your word to raise taxes?” He can strike back surreptitiously as he did by offering himself as an anonymous source for a Union Leader story, enabling him to hit a Mitt Romney surrogate without appearing to do so. And he can wave away an opponent with the back of his hand. Asked about a Bachmann's snipe against him regarding the individual mandate, he dismissed her by referring to her assertion earlier in the campaign that the Revolutionary War started in Concord, N.H., not Concord, Mass.. "Have you been in Concord?" he asked. "Go to Concord sometime and I’ll talk to you later about Mrs. Bachmann." (Don't fret Mrs. Bachmann, he thinks we're dummies too.)
Once the knife is in, Gingrich knows how to twist it. When he suggested Romney return the money he made at Bain, Gingrich bet $10 Romney wouldn't do it, a reference to the $10,000 bet Romney offered to Rick Perry.
Gingrich, in fact, is the MacGyver of attack politics, perhaps the most effective and resourceful attacking politician of the modern era. He includes an attack strategy in nearly every policy proposal. When he announced his plan to allow private Social Security accounts, he said he would sell it by using clips from Obama interviews in which the president suggested people might not get their Social Security checks. He taunts the president into debating him. "He can even use a teleprompter." Even when he talks about bipartisanship, he does it with an edge of combat. He says to increase energy exploration, Republicans should embrace the Webb-Warner bill, not because cooperation with two Democratic senators is a moral good, but because if Republicans support a Democratic bill, it will force Democrats into voting for policy Republicans want or look cravenly political.
On the very day Gingrich was walloping Romney and Bachmann he was proclaiming his virtue in an email to supporters: "We will not let this campaign devolve into personal attacks, because the American people deserve a debate worthy of the office of President of the United States." Gingrich often ranks at the bottom of the field when Republican voters are asked who they like—he was sixth in the recent Des Moines Register poll—so no wonder he's so loudly embracing Reagan's 11th commandment: “Thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” He's just added the Gingrich codicil: “… unless they speak ill of you first.”
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