Newt Channels Conservatives’ Resentment of Mitt Romney

Newt Gingrich’s victory has less to do with him and everything to do with Mitt Romney.

Former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich appears on the CBS News' Face the Nation, May 6, 2012
Former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich appears on the CBS News’ Face the Nation, May 6, 2012 (AP)

Newt Gingrich’s huge win in the Republican primary election in South Carolina on Saturday may have had less to do with the former House speaker’s popularity and everything to do with conservatives’ resentment of their presumptive nominee, Mitt Romney.

On CBS News’ Face the Nation on Sunday, Gingrich suggested that Romney lost votes in South Carolina when “people began to realize that he’d been pro-choice, pro-gun control and pro-tax increase” as a governor in the northeastern state of Massachusetts between 2003 and 2007.

Romney has defended his record by pointing out that he had to work with a Democratic legislature in Massachusetts and claimed that he changed his position on abortion when he was confronted with the issue of stem cell research. As a result, he was nevertheless “way to the left of South Carolinians,” as Gingrich put it.

It’s not just that Romney is perceived as a moderate; he has failed to enthuse Republican activists for an election that many of them regard as historic. As former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour put it on Face the Nation, “Romney’s strengths are more managerial.” Gingrich, by contrast, is able to rally people with his ability to clearly and concisely articulate conservative beliefs and positions.

Gingrich described himself as a “populist conservative” on NBC’ Meet the Press and said that what “nobody in Washington or New York gets is the level of anger at the national establishment. People who are just sick and tired of being told what they’re allowed to think, what they’re allowed to say.”

This reiterated the argument that Gingrich made in his victory speech in South Carolina on Saturday night where he suggested that “the elites in Washington and New York have no understanding, no care, no concern” for ordinary Americans.

The American people feel that they have elites that been trying for a half century to force us to quit being American.

This sort of rhetoric tends to resonate with right-wing voters who resent what they perceive as government overreach and an Obama Administration that Gingrich said last night has been a “disaster.”

It’s why conservative RedState blogger Erick Erickson observed that people were flocking to Gingrich not so much because they liked him but because they were “looking for a vessel to channel their anger with Obama and their complete disappointment with the GOP establishment which is now embodied perfectly by Romney.”

Former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough, now an MSNBC morning show host, insisted that Gingrich wasn’t even a conservative. “He uses this resentment to actually hide a record,” he said on Meet the Press; a record that is far from reactionary and fairly similar to Mitt Romney’s. Both previously supported an individual health insurance mandate and both previously supported emission trade legislation. Neither is particularly popular with the conservative base anymore.

The Republican establishment in Washington gave us $5 trillion of debt during the Bush era. They took a $155 billion surplus and turned it into a $1 trillion deficit. They engaged in radical foreign policy, Wilsonian foreign policy. George Bush promising to end tyranny across the globe. The conservative moment is saying “no,” stop.

“Gingrich is not going to be our final choice,” Scarborough predicted. “But we’re not handing this off to Mitt Romney right now.”