NEWT GINGRICH is the latest unlikely figure to vault to the top of Republican presidential polls, and unlike those who preceded him - Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain - he’s likely to stick around. That’s partly due to necessity. With just a month until the Iowa caucuses, conservatives don’t have time to anoint a new savior. It’s also because, despite his copious shortcomings, he seems immune to what felled the others. An able debater, he won’t flop like Perry and Cain. He’s not a full-on nut like Trump. And his legislative record eclipses Bachmann’s, which barely exists.
But his late emergence as the “true conservative’’ poised to challenge Mitt Romney is rich, and its broader significance underappreciated. For two years, the driving force in national politics has been the Tea Party, whose founding myth was that ordinary citizens were rising up in defiant objection to the hidebound, self-dealing ways of Washington. Greedy politicians, this view held, had bloated the government and lined their own pockets at taxpayers’ expense, while letting the country go to rot. Prime examples were the expansion of government health care and federal support for the housing market - especially Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored entities that many conservatives blame for the financial crisis. The mere fact of being a veteran Washington legislator made respected conservatives like Senator Bob Bennett of Utah into Tea Party targets and cost many their jobs. Should all that anger, energy, and antipathy to Washington end up concentrating itself in the person of Newt Gingrich, then the movement will have failed in its most important race.
Temperamentally, Gingrich is well-suited to represent the Tea Party. His zestful attacks on the media and unbridled self-regard both reflect movement tendencies. But since being deposed as House speaker in 1999, he has earned millions of dollars by conducting himself in almost point-by-point contrast to what the Tea Party claims to stand for.
Shortly after leaving Congress, he established The Gingrich Group, a lobbying and strategy firm that grossed $55 million over the next decade. Like most Washington eminences who trade on their public service, Gingrich huffily rejects the “lobbyist’’ label, claiming that he simply provided insight and strategic advice. But that’s what lobbyists do.
They also create politically acceptable rationales for others to support their clients’ interests. Gingrich was paid at least $1.6 million by Freddie Mac to help fend off new congressional regulations, presumably by convincing fellow Republicans to set aside their philosophical objections.
Gingrich also established a health care consulting firm, the Center for Health Transformation, that took money from drug companies like Pfizer and AstraZeneca - and also from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the main drug lobby - during the successful push in 2003 to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. According to the Washington Examiner, Gingrich personally leaned on Republicans in Congress to support the bill.
And beyond lobbying, Gingrich has held many positions that are anathema to Tea Party conservatives. He once supported an individual mandate to buy health insurance - Mitt Romney’s inexpiable sin. He teamed up with Nancy Pelosi to urge action against global warming. Earlier this year, he criticized House Republicans’ budget plan as “right-wing social engineering,’’ only to change tack when criticized. In fact, Gingrich felt obliged to post to his campaign website rebuttals to 18 separate controversies and apostasies involving his positions and their evolution.
None of this has stopped him from trying to claim the conservative mantle. “We think there has to be a solid conservative alternative to Mitt Romney,’’ he told a South Carolina radio station this week. “I wouldn’t lie to the American people. I wouldn’t switch my positions for political reasons.’’
But of course he has already done so many times. And yet, this hasn’t appeared to hurt him with conservative activists, who are, in fact, rallying to his side. A Republican primary that began as a contest for the hearts and minds of these activists - causing mainstream figures like Tim Pawlenty to contort themselves in accommodation - now seems likely to end as a desperate bid to find anyone who isn’t Romney. If that’s Gingrich, it will be a measure of just how far the Tea Party has fallen.
Joshua Green is a national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.