Newt Gingrich resurrected his political career in South Carolina last night, and he did it by returning to his roots. Gingrich is one of the greatest negative politicians ever to hold power in Washington. As I noted in my 1996 book, Newt Gingrich: Capitol Crimes and Misdemeanors (available on Google Books), Gingrich rose to power based on his C-SPAN attacks on Democrats in the 1980s, and used the hatred of corrupt Democrats to accomplish the Republican Revolution in 1994. Gingrich was the expert at the smear campaign.
Newt's success in the Republican debates had little to do with any skill at debating. Gingrich doesn't win debates with sound arguments; he does it with easy applause lines before solidly conservative audiences, by denouncing the “elite” media. Public Policy Polling found that 77% of South Carolina Republicans had an unfavorable view of the media, compared to only 14% who had a favorable view. Instead of attacking his rivals, Gingrich attacked the media, and he won voters by seeking to appease the conservative base.
Gingrich called his victory “humbling,” which is exactly what Gingrich says when he's not humbled in the least. Gingrich wasn't humbled when confronted about his thinly-disguised racial language. He delighted in the attacks, playing the race card by lecturing African-Americans about work habits and denouncing Obama as a “food stamp” president, then angrily feigning racial innocence.
Gingrich still faces an uphill fight to win the Republican nomination. Romney has a huge advantage in fundraising and organizing. If Gingrich is as bad at running a campaign as he was at running the House, he may still lose. But if Gingrich can consolidate the anti-Romney conservative vote, no amount of money and establishment support can give Romney the nomination.
Back in 1996, I regarded Gingrich as the pseudo-intellectual on the fringes of the far right, an accidental Speaker whose political incompetence eventually brought him down. As the Republican Party has lurched even further to the right and became even more anti-intellectual, Gingrich has struggled to find an identity. His early failure to appease the far right (by criticizing Paul Ryan's plan to privatize Medicare) and his rambling speeches on the future gained little support. But Gingrich returned to his roots: he denounced liberalism and attacked the media, using the debates as his platform for a revival once the rest of the not-Romneys failed.
Gingrich is living his dream again, using harsh attacks on liberalism to secure his place at the top of the conservative movement. Gingrich's personal baggage, nasty personality, and far-right ideology will bring him almost certain defeat against Barack Obama. But that won't stop Tea Party Republicans from picking him over Mitt Romney. Gingrich helped to create the far right wing that has taken over the Republican Party, and now he may reap the benefits of the movement even while he leads it again to electoral defeat.
Crossposted at DailyKos.