Newt Gingrich first made his mark in the dawning era of cable news, when the combative Georgian captured a generation of young conservatives’ hearts and minds. Now the man who rose to become Speaker of the House and then fell from power is back again. And as another marquee debate performance showed on Saturday, his surprising climb to the top of the Republican presidential field is best understood as stemming from coded appeals and historical references targeted to the older white voters that make up the grassroots of the Tea Party movement.
Facing direct scrutiny of his marital problems, occasional breaches of conservative orthodoxy, and lucrative post-congressional career in Washington, Gingrich was calm and poised at the next-to-last Republican debate before the Iowa caucuses next month, his demeanor that of someone in control of their destiny and confident of achieving a special place in American history.
One of his opponents, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (who rode the wave of the 1994 Republican Revolution), no doubt boosted Gingrich’s appeal by doing what the candidate himself has done all campaign: He reminded Republicans why they fell in love with Newt in the first place.
“When I was first running for office, you know, Newt Gingrich was the guy whose tapes I’ve listened to as a young man… He laid out a vision for conservative governance that I adopted and ran with in a very, very tough congressional district outside of suburban Pittsburgh, so tough that no one gave me a chance of winning it.”
That Newt delivered the GOP from forty years of congressional exile when he led them to retake the House of Representatives in the ’94 midterm elections cannot be stressed enough — and despite his years of scandal and high-priced Washington consulting, recent polls show that his strongest support comes from Tea Party members and seniors, exactly the kind of people who would remember his failures.
But asking Newt Gingrich to successfully pander to the Republican Party’s conservative base is like asking Mitt Romney to fix the cash-flow of a struggling supermarket chain. He’s good at it because he’s done it for decades.
“We found in our research that Tea Partiers at the grassroots level are older white people who actually approve of Social Security and Medicare and veterans benefits, but they’re very worried about public benefits for immigrants,” said Harvard Professor Theda Skocpol, who with two graduate student colleagues interviewed dozens of activists in the Greater Boston Tea Party and polled their membership on a variety of national issues. This is probably why Rick Perry’s talk of public education for illegal immigrants caused him more Tea Party trouble than Newt’s apostasy on Paul Ryan’s Medicare privatization scheme.
“Of course, Gingrich also has another thing going for him with older white voters: they remember his glory days,” Skocpol added.
Rather than sabotaging him or even openly opposing his candidacy, most GOP members of Congress who didn’t get along with the former Speaker have held their fire. Too many rank-and-file Republicans retain fond memories of a dynamic, bold, and powerful leader for them to make moves against him.
“In the living memory of conservatives, there are three high-water marks: the election of Ronald Reagan, the ascendance in 1994 of Republicans controlling the House, and the Tea Party movement,” said Rick Wilson, a veteran Florida-based GOP consultant.
“Those for conservatives are the three moments that they look at and go: ‘This is where we were doing it right.’ And in a very significant measure, Gingrich’s mark is on that middle piece and [Tea Party issues] are things he’s very comfortable talking about.”
His political career began during the school busing fights and economic malaise of the 1970s, when appeals to the white “Silent Majority” of Americans that began in the Nixon years were becoming increasingly central to Republican political strategy. He knows and loves the racial code of “dog-whistle” politics, stoking resentment against minority groups while retaining a veneer of politeness and decency. He even met with former President Nixon himself repeatedly in the ’80s and early ’90s to plot a Republican resurgence.
In an echo of the “welfare queen” rhetoric that Ronald Reagan used on the campaign trail in 1980, Gingrich was always sure to incorporate culture war issues into his messaging. In 1988, he lectured conservative Republican candidates, “Notice the power of the word ‘gay’ versus the word ‘homosexual,’ and notice how it changes the whole dynamic of the discussion.”
As a Republican strategist who worked closely with Newt put it to Connie Bruck of The New Yorker after the GOP took the House, “Newt grasped the essential cultural revolt. Middle-class people are not against rich people — they’re against funding poor people. People are sick and tired of people of color having illegitimate kids and spending money on drugs and creating crime.” This time around, Gingrich seems to have decided to target Americans making use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Since the recession hit, use of the program has skyrocketed and become less taboo. But Gingrich sees an opening, as he made clear in a recent appearance on CNBC.
“We are going to have the candidate of food stamps, the finest food stamp president in American history in Barack Obama, and we are going to have a candidate of paychecks,” he said.
He clearly hasn’t lost that intuitive ability to appeal to the frustrated, white, older conservatives that make up the core of the Tea Party.
“Republicans have found the best anti-Romney,” said Sidney Blumenthal, whose tenure as a senior advisor to Bill Clinton overlapped with some of Gingrich’s time as Speaker of the House. “Boiled down to its essence, it’s resentment. For Gingrich, his great talent is to voice and reflect resentment.”
And now he is now doing what Romney never could: reminding Republicans of the heyday of the modern conservative movement in the mid 1990s, when the right was winning the culture war and Bill Clinton was signing reactionary legislation like the Defense of Marriage Act, denying federal recognition to same-sex relationships.
“He pulled off this historic coup,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton and an expert on Congress. “He made conservatives a force in the Republican Party, and in some ways conservatives are forever grateful and appreciate that he delivered for them.”
Follow Political Correspondent Matt Taylor on Twitter @matthewt_ny