The mittens have come off!
Here was Mitt Romney, stumping late yesterday in Florida: “Speaker Gingrich has also been a leader. He was a leader for four years as Speaker of the House. And at the end of four years, it was proven that he was a failed leader and he had to resign in disgrace. I don’t know whether you knew that, he actually resigned after four years, in disgrace.”
Also, “He was investigated (by) an ethics panel and had to make a payment associated with that – and then his fellow Republicans, 88 percent of his Republicans, voted to reprimand Speaker Gingrich. He has not had a record of successful leadership.”Attacking Newt as a “failed leader” – in other words, telling truths about Newt – is crucial to Mitt’s comeback strategy. The main way Mitt can get his mojo back is to seize the offensive, to take the fight to his chief tormentor, to convince Florida Republicans that Newt’s new image as an “anti-establishment” conservative outsider is a con job.But the big question, over the next eight days that culminate in the Florida primary, is whether the voters will listen. We live, after all, in amnesia nation. And if the voters view Romney as a flawed messenger, they may not be willing to join him on a truthy trip down memory lane, back to Newt’s brief heyday in the 1990s.Nevertheless, we’ll be hearing a lot about the ’90s in the days ahead, perhaps during tonight’s debate as well. Brace yourself for a return to that seemingly distant time when Jewel ruled the music charts, Seinfeld was must-see TV, women were buzzing about Jimmy Choo shoes, and we were hearing about an impending miracle called the World Wide Web. It was also the time when Newt soared and crashed. As the conservative National Review Online put it, back in the day, “Only skydivers plunge more quickly from greater heights.”One of Romney’s surrogates, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, summed up Newt concisely on Meet The Press yesterday: “We all know the record. I mean, he was run out of the speakership by his own party. He was fined $300,000 for ethics violations. This is a guy who’s had a very difficult political career at times, and has been an embarrassment for the party.”All factually true. Newt has been in Washington since 1979, a consummate insider. In phase one, he was a Big Idea back-bencher who preached that politics was warfare. As a former House Republican colleague, Mickey Edwards, said of Newt several months ago, “More than any other man alive, he is responsible for creating the non-stop partisan warfare that has made American government so dysfunctional.”In phase two (1995-6), he was the newly ascended Speaker, having led the conservatives to power. In phase three (1997), he became the first Speaker in history to be reprimanded for ethics violations. He was also the target of an attempted coup by conservatives who felt he’d cut too many budget deals with President Clinton (Clinton repeatedly cleaned Newt’s clock), and who saw him as hopelessly undisciplined and volatile.In phase three (1998), he led the House impeachment drive against Clinton, despite the fact that most Americans opposed impeachment. He told House Republicans that impeachment would be a winning issue in the ’98 midterms, that the GOP would pick up 30 seats. He was wrong on both counts. The GOP wound up winning no seats, and losing five. Newt’s Republican colleagues were already ticked at Newt for ceding more ground to Democrats in budget talks. But the fury at Newt over the failed impeachment strategy was so intense that, within four days of the election, he announced under pressure that he was quitting the speakership. He also quit his House seat, and went into well-compensated exile – pulling down fat fees from the pharmaceutical industry in exchange for his services as an influence peddler on Capitol Hill, and working as an unregistered lobbyist (or, as he prefers to call it, “historian” or “strategic adviser”) for Freddie Mac.Romney’s attempts this week to fill in Newt’s history will be dismissed, by Newt, as partisan negativity, and woe to the debate moderator who dares to bring up the past. But the thing is, many conservatives have long viewed Newt in a harshly negative light. Twelve years ago, National Review Online summarized Newt’s insider career by assailing his “egoism, bombast, and severe foot-in-mouth disease….He distracted attention from the GOP’s 1994 takeover of Congress with his ill-conceived, multimillion-dollar book deal. He created further ill will when he whined about having to exit the back door of Air Force One after returning from Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral. He caused even more jaws to drop when he blamed ‘the welfare state’ for the murder of a pregnant woman whose baby the accused killers stole by Cesarean section. Americans subsequently learned that while Gingrich was defending his House majority and presiding over President Clinton’s impeachment, he also was enjoying his own lengthy affair with Callista Bisek, a then-32-year-old House Agriculture Committee staffer. This relationship was not just immoral, but staggeringly reckless politically.”But will Florida’s Republican voters care about any of this? The irony is that grassroots voters are so turned off to Washington that they probably have little interest in reviewing what happened a decade and a half ago in Washington. The reluctance to look back may be Newt’s best friend. And he can always cloak himself in God, again seeking forgiveness for all past transgressions.Romney supporter Kenneth Davis, a Republican strategist in Philadelphia and former chairman of the Montgomery County GOP, emailed me yesterday with this lament: “You would think that some of these people were running to be President of the United Church of Christ. Forgiveness and redemption (nothing wrong with that) have taken the place of memory. Amnesia has set in.”Breaching that amnesia may prove to be Romney’s biggest challenge.——-Speaking of Romney, I wrote in my Sunday newspaper column about his other big challenge: convincing downtrodden voters that a very rich guy feels their pain.——-I did another Live Chat today. I’m live-tweeting the debate tonight.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1