Reagan’s bit player

    If the Florida polls are correct, Mitt Romney appears poised to (finally?) pound a stake into the heart of the Newt Gingrich candidacy. Then he’d drop a two-ton bank safe on top of it, then he’d drop a 20-ton boulder on top of the bank safe, then he’d nuke the boulder and the bank safe, then he’d bury all the ashes at the center of the earth to ensure they don’t regenerate.Newt has sputtered in Florida for lots of reasons, but my favorite is his persistent claim that he enjoyed some kind of power bromance with Ronald Reagan. He keeps insisting that the Republican “establishment” is filled with moderate wimps who merely want to manage the nation’s decline, and that the establishment fears him because he alone is a transformative historic figure in the mold of his ’80s compadre, Ronald Reagan. As Newt declared on the stump Saturday, he’s “very proud to run on a Reagan-Gingrich record.” As he said on the morning chat shows yesterday, he’s a “Reagan conservative” who treasured “working with Ronald Reagan.” Indeed, during the Republican debates, Newt has invoked Reagan on more occasions than all his rivals combined, insisting, for instance, that he and Reagan toiled in tandem to conquer Soviet communism.But Newt’s sales pitch has been phony. For starters, many Reagan alumni are now members of the Republican establishment. And they don’t view Newt as a credible Reaganite. Since the “historian” doesn’t even know his own history, the Reagan alumni have been compelled to point out that, in truth, Newt was barely a bit player on Reagan’s stage.Peggy Noonan, the noted Reagan speechwriter, said so the other day, in a Wall Street Journal column. She wrote that Newt was a back-bencher who “had almost nothing to do with Reagan’s achievements.” Indeed, she recalls Newt as someone who frequently second-guessed Reagan – sometimes “from the right, and sometimes the left.” She dismisses him today as a mere opportunist: “By the mid-2000s, when Reagan’s dominance as an iconic GOP figure was fully established, Mr. Gingrich was aligning himself with him fully and enthusiastically, in films and books. He is an entrepreneur; it was where the business was.”Most importantly, she says that Newt lacks Reagan’s sunny, expansive disposition; voters don’t buy Newt as an heir to Reagan, precisely because he is so unlike Reagan. As Noonan put it, “Reagan was a constructive figure, not destructive. If Newt is the donkey who knocked down the barn, Reagan’s the guy who’d build it. He wasn’t driven by need, and anger wasn’t his fuel.”Other Reagan alumni remember Newt’s anger. Elliott Abrams, a defense official during the Reagan era, wrote the other day about a speech that the back-bencher delivered on the House floor in 1985, a blistering attack that painted Reagan as soft on communism. Young Newt declared: “Measured against the scale and momentum of the Soviet empire’s challenge, the Reagan administration has failed, is failing, and without a dramatic change in strategy will continue to fail.” Newt said that the ultimate blame for the administration’s “pathetically incompetent…weak policies” goes right to the top: “The burden of this failure frankly must be placed first on President Reagan.” Indeed, Newt declared that Reagan’s ’85 sitdown with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.”That’s right, folks. The guy who now claims he worked with Reagan to defeat communism was actually a guy who, back in the day, compared Reagan to Neville Chamberlain.The rest of Newt’s current pitch rings false as well. He boasts that Nancy Reagan passed him the Reagan torch when he engineered the GOP takeover of the House in 1994. That’s true, as far as it goes. The problem is, his own conservative comrades rebelled against him when he sought to sell out the Reagan legacy in 1997. As Joe Scarborough, an alum from the ’95 Newt freshman conservative class, recalled in a column the other day:”Three years into his speakership, the man who helped draft the Contract With America began trying to undo some of that document’s key provisions. The government shutdown (aimed at Bill Clinton) had badly damaged the speaker’s brand and he went to work trying to raise his 27 percent approval rating. In April 1997, Gingrich told The New York Times he was ready to be a kinder and gentler Republican by negotiating away the very tax cuts that he had once called ‘the crown jewels of the contract.’ Soon, conservatives were being pressured to vote for big spending appropriations bills. In his final speech from the floor of Congress, Newt Gingrich lashed out wildly at the same freshmen who had made him speaker – mocking us as cannibals…”As Scarborough knows from experience, Newt is not a conviction conservative; rather, he has “a fatal tendency to flit from issue to issue – and even from core conviction to core conviction.”Granted, the Romney campaign in recent days has orchestrated many attacks on Newt’s phony Reagan credentials; Newt has naturally complained. Romney clearly seeks to run up the Florida score tomorrow night, hoping that a double-digit blowout will bury Newt once and for all. And Romney’s attacks appear to be working largely because the attacks are based in fact. Voters seem to sense that Newt is no Reagan.Indeed, Romney himself made the best case against Newt a few debates ago, when he observed in passing that Reagan, in his now-famous diaries, had mentioned Newt a grand total of once. Here’s the mention, from Jan. 3, 1983:”Met with a group of young Republican congressmen. Newt Gingrich has a proposal for freezing the budget at the 1983 levels. It’s a tempting idea, except that it would cripple our defense program.”That was it for Newt. Four lines in the diary. Reagan then went on to describe his dinner that night, and the entertainment provided by Hollywood veteran Eddie Albert, the star of TV’s Green Acres, whom Reagan found most delightful.But hey, there was one upside for Newt. At least he got two more lines than Eddie Albert.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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