Losing candidates usually congratulate the winner — first by telephone and then in front of their supporters. Not Newt Gingrich. When he loses, Gingrich doesn’t even bother to pretend to be a good sport.
Already, insiders are calling Newt’s Saturday Las Vegas news conference the modern equivalent of Richard Nixon’s pronouncement “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”
Saturday night, after placing a distant second place in the GOP Nevada caucuses, Gingrich dispensed with the customary concession speech and instead held a news conference. The former speaker of the House both cajoled and berated the media and then complained that his opponent Mitt Romney outspent him 5 to 1 in Florida and ended by promising to stay in the race.
It was “like a 22-minute version of the Howard Dean scream,” observed political consultant Chris Lehane, a former spokesman for President Bill Clinton. “For a guy who’s afraid of seeming erratic,” Lehane observed, “he certainly leaned into the negative storyline.”
It would have been a lot smarter for Gingrich to acknowledge that Romney won and then thank his supporters. But no, Gingrich is too clever for that, as he constantly reminds others.
In June, the Gingrich campaign staff resigned en masse because the candidate wouldn’t do what aides said he needed to do to win enough states. Turns out they were right. But Gingrich has long maintained that he doesn’t need to listen to advisers; he is his own best compass.
So how did Gingrich explain his stumble during the second Florida debate? A reporter asked: Would a political consultant perhaps have helped?
No political consultant, Gingrich raged, could have trained him to fend off the Romney machine’s ruthless and dishonest attacks. He was stunned into silence, Gingrich explained, when Romney said he never had voted for a Democrat when a Republican was on the ballot — a statement PolitiFact found to be “half-true.”
It was a bizarre claim. A cornerstone of the Gingrich campaign has been the candidate’s zeal to challenge President Barack Obama to seven three-hour Lincoln-Douglas-style debates. Now Republicans learn that Gingrich gets tongue-tied over half-truths.
What I want to know is: How did Gingrich manage to come in second place in Florida and Nevada?
During the Clinton years, Republicans frequently argued that voters should demand leaders with character. As then House speaker, Gingrich did more than risk his second marriage when he had an affair with his current wife; he was also reckless with the Republican Party’s reputation. And he so lacked the ability to govern himself that the GOP House reprimanded him on an ethics charge and later made him ex-speaker. Why would any Republican who lived through the Clinton era support a candidate with the Newter’s oversize ego and checkered record?
“It’s a weak field,” answered Larry Sabato, the sage of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Character, Sabato says, is a standard that partisans reserve mainly for the other side.
Now we see the problem with the Gingrich campaign: It’s all talk. There is no character.