Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich listens to staff during visit to Children’s Hospital, Friday, January 20, 2012, in Charleston, South Carolina. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
A visit to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference Friday morning provided a window into the central conundrum of Newt Gingrich’s campaign: how a candidate could be so appealing to voters that he keeps resurging, and so flawed in his history and campaign execution that he may blow every opportunity.
Talking to voters showed how Gingrich is weathering the storm created by the embarrassing revelation that he asked his second wife, Marianne Gingrich, for an “open marriage” so that he could continue to cheat on her.
Outside the college basketball arena where the conference is being held, a group of older women who drove up more than five hours on Wednesday from Longwood, Florida, to canvass for Gingrich were waving signs for passing cars. They are happy to give Gingrich a pass on his infidelity. “I’ve read about how he changed his life and I believe him,” says Jane Yeacle. “He’s a lot more mature now. That was a long time ago.” The events in question were in 1999 when Gingrich was 56 years old. It was after his heroic exploits to which he devotes most of his stump speech: Republican electoral triumphs in 1980 and 1994 and the tax cuts of the 1980s and 1990s.
At the debate on CNN Thursday night Gingrich bellowed at moderator John King for asking about his ex-wife’s allegations. “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office,” said Gingrich. Luckily Gingrich is not a decent person, so he’s still running for president.
The debate audience ate it up. Speaking at the SLRC this morning, conservative blogger Erick Golub summarized the sentiment with his opening joke: “I apologize for my voice. I went to the debate last night and the minute John King spoke he made me sick.”
The problem for Gingrich is that he has staked much of his career on arguing for the importance of family values and traditional marriage. After the debate his spokesman, R.C. Hammond, and his surrogate, J.C. Watts, clarified that the Gingrich campaign does not claim his marital history is off-limits, only that King should not have opened the debate by asking about it. Whether you think King should have waited an hour to ask his question or not, it hardly seems significant enough to justify the anger Gingrich displayed.
But to Gingrich’s fans his anger is a feature, not a bug. Just as conservatives adore New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for verbally bullying liberal inquisitors, Gingrich’s fulmination against liberals, “elites” and lazy poor people is what they like about him. Throughout the primary process Gingrich’s attacks on the media for asking what he considers to be the wrong question has played well with conservative audiences. It’s related to his racial dog whistles. Both are ways of signaling to angry, old white people that he shares their feelings of aggravation at cultural foreigners, be they minorities or journalists.