Newt Gingrich is trying to win over the Tea Party. Unlike Mitt Romney, who—being despised by many Tea Party activists and leaders—generally avoids encounters with them, Gingrich sees the Tea Party movement as a potential part of his primary coalition. His campaign manager for South Carolina, Adam Waldeck, has worked heavily on Tea Party outreach in other states, spreading Gingrich’s message to Tea Party leaders and inviting them to share their concerns and ideas.
But how does the Tea Party feel about Gingrich? Decidedly mixed. On the one hand, he embodies much of what they loathe about politics: a career politician who has lobbied on behalf of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Gingrich has profited from his political influence, and he earned a rebuke from the House Ethics Committee while he was Speaker of the House in 1996. He also has taken many positions in the past that may alarm them, most notably filming a commercial with Nancy Pelosi endorsing action against climate change, and most recently calling for a “humane” policy towards illegal immigrants.
On the other hand, Gingrich’s political persona is much more appealing to movement conservatives than Romney’s. He is a determined partisan who throws rhetorical firebombs. And unlike, say, Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann, he has a high enough IQ and a deep enough knowledge base to make the conservative case against Obama in complete, often coherent, sentences.
“Even if a conservative or Republican finds things annoying about the guy, which nearly all of us do, he’s able to articulate a perspective that taps into the set of political concerns and worldviews that we to some extent have and share,” says Soren Dayton, a Republican political consultant. “I think he’s probably the most effective person at explaining Republican and conservative grievances.”
Those mixed feelings are echoed by Tea Party leaders, who say they remain open to supporting Gingrich in the primaries, despite his apostasies. “There are a lot of very strong fiscally conservative elements in Gingrich’s record and platform, and there are question marks, especially relating to environmental issues like cap-and-trade and his involvement with Republicans for Environmental Protection,” says Phil Kerpen vice-president for policy of Americans for Prosperity, a Tea Party–aligned group. “As with anyone, it’s a mixed bag. But there’s a lot for fiscal conservatives to like there.”
On Saturday Gingrich held a town hall hosted by the Staten Island Tea Party in New York. Gingrich spoke in front of the oddly appropriate fake Roman columns of a Hilton Garden Inn ballroom that is clearly designed for weddings. The audience was composed largely of what were once called Reagan Democrats: middle-class and working-class white Catholics. Everyone I spoke to says they consistently vote Republican in presidential elections, even though some were registered Democrats or Independents. Some preferred Romney to Gingrich because they perceive him as more electable, but all shared an antipathy for Obama and plan to vote any Republican presidential nominee in 2012. The overwhelming sense of grievance was classic Tea Party backlash politics: the anger of older whites over what they perceive as profligate social spending on wayward youth and other undeserving moochers.
“I’ve been a Democrat all my life,” said Auggie Ruggiero, a retired longshoreman. “That used to mean the party of working people, now it’s the party of not-working people, people who want nothing but hand-outs.” Roseanne Parragano said she worries that young people, such as her three sons currently in college, “are convinced they won’t get a job.” Her husband George is concerned about illegal immigration, which he blames for overburdening the American healthcare system. The speech was preceded by the Pledge of Allegiance, with one crowd member adding “born and unborn” after the phrase “liberty and justice for all.”
Gingrich delivered the kind of conservative red meat such a crowd enjoys, but in an often light-hearted tone. For example, he dismissed the Occupy Wall Street protest by tossing in another conservative whipping post, the media. “If it wasn’t for the American news media’s fascination with anybody on the left, they’d be ‘the one-tenth of 1 percent,’ ” said Gingrich, prompting delighted chortles from the audience.
Gingrich’s stump address is a mix of simplistic mockery of liberals and government, laced with the occasional fervid call to arms. Gingrich is fond of rhetorical gimmicks, such as illustrating bureaucratic incompetence by contrasting it with expensive private sector services. “Why is it that UPS and FedEx can track 24 million packages a day, but the US government can’t find 11 million illegal immigrants, even if they’re sitting still?” Gingrich demanded. (The answer, that humans—especially illegal immigrants—don’t come with tracking numbers and bar codes, appeared not to occur to the audience as it roared with laughter.) But Gingrich went on declare the 2012 presidential election to be the most consequential since 1860, because eight years of Obama would do damage from which the country could never recover. The presentation is effective, but lacks serious policy specifics. Gingrich’s solution to the logistical challenge of locating 11 million undocumented immigrants? “One of my proposals is that we send them all a package.“
Tea Party leaders in the crucial state of Iowa say Gingrich’s campaign has done effective outreach and has a chance at winning over their support, but his record gives them pause. “His immigration stance has been something that’s not a very popular stance here,” says Ryan Rhodes, a state coordinator of the Iowa Tea Party. “A lot of people agree there needs to be a thoughtful [deportation] process, but for a conservative that doesn’t start with using a liberal argument, the ‘humane’ argument. People remember the couch [where Gingrich filmed an ad on climate change] with Pelosi. There are different things people are going to have as their issue.” Nonetheless, Rhodes says Gingrich still has a chance of winning over Iowa Tea Partiers, crediting Waldeck’s campaign outreach as the primary reason.
But in New Hampshire the Tea Party seems to have much colder feelings towards Gingrich. “Most of us can’t figure out why anyone would think Newt is the alternative to Romney,” says Jane Aitken, coordinator for the New Hampshire Tea Party coalition. “He is as much, if not more of a flip-flopper, as Romney. That is not to say that there aren’t some people who consider themselves ‘tea party’ who support Newt but I just haven’t seen a lot of support for him in our ranks of group leaders.” Aitken also speculates that someone who is younger and only recently started following politics may be unaware of Gingrich’s past betrayals of conservatives. Ron Paul has released a scathing commercial to educate them on just that subject.
The question and answer session after Gingrich’s speech in Staten Island on Saturday demonstrated how he benefits from the short memory of American voters. Gingrich was asked, for example, about term limits for Congress, and he said he opposes them. The questioner must have been unaware that Gingrich’s 1994 Contract With America pledged to enact Congressional term limits. The Republican majority, naturally, abandoned that promise once they took over.
Gingrich may yet win the support of many Tea Party activists. Herman Cain, a favorite of the conservative base, dropped out on Saturday and is expected to endorse Gingrich. Gingrich has adopted the habit, strangely reminiscent of Obama in 2008, of saying he wants his audience “with me, not for me,” since fixing America will require a collective effort. That language of empowerment is well written for the Tea Party and other grassroots activists. But, if history is any guide, they should not be surprised if a President Gingrich sells them out again.