Whether Newt Gingrich ever wins another primary after South Carolina or not, he has performed an important service to American voters in this election. Not in the self-important way that he imagines, of course. But Gingrich’s mocking assault on Mitt Romney, his career at Bain Capital and reluctance to disclose his tax returns has driven a national discussion of economic unfairness, tax avoidance, and abuse of financial power that might never have occurred without the Gingrich intervention. The angry intensity of the former Speaker has overcome the usual timidity of the mainstream media – which hesitate to address such matters forthrightly or to offend Republican sensibilities — forcing the salient questions about Romney into the spotlight.
In the final hours of the South Carolina primary campaign, Gingrich verbally flayed his main rival in terms that the Obama White House would probably hesitate to repeat. “Don’t you sort of admire the arrogance and dishonesty of the Romney campaign?” he asked with typical rhetorical flair. “They can’t release their tax records. They’re hiding. He can’t even answer coherently (at) a debate. … Until he files his tax returns, I’m not going to take anything he says seriously about being open.”
The irony of the Gingrich resurgence, of course, is that his political tactics have emboldened press coverage of Romney even while he ritualistically attacks the “liberal media,” as he has done repeatedly for the past three decades. He despises the “negative” approach of political journalism, except when the victim is one of his opponents, in which he case he emphasizes and amplifies any negative report. The easiest way to understand Gingrich’s impact on the Republican primaries — and on Romney’s unimpeded march toward the nomination, until now — is how little attention has been devoted to the former Massachusetts governor’s financial affairs in the past.
During two decades as a political figure, the Bain capitalist has contrived to conceal his tax returns from the public, suffering nothing but an occasional impotent protest from editorial writers, pundits, and political opponents. Running against Senator Ted Kennedy in 1994, Romney dared to demand that the incumbent release his tax returns despite his refusal to release his own. During Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign, neither his Cayman Island accounts nor his looting of Main Street companies drew any significant attention from the press. But all that has changed now, with only one predictable consequence: Romney will have to answer pertinent questions that he would much prefer to avoid.
That the Romney campaign responded to Gingrich’s attacks by suggesting that he should disclose more information about his ethics problems in Congress was amusing but ineffectual. Americans may not know everything about the Gingrich, Inc. machine that has made him a regular customer at Tiffany’s, but they know enough. Although Gingrich often claims he is the “real American” and disparages the patriotism of Democrats (as he did in his victory remarks last night), most Americans admire President Obama far more than the former speaker. Few politicians are more responsible then Gingrich for the ugly tenor of politics in America today, a record that has made him broadly, deservedly, and permanently disliked. He will certainly never be president and he will almost certainly never win his party’s presidential nomination. But in kamikaze mode, he is blowing up the right targets.