Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich speaks during a debate hosted… (Scott Olson / Getty Images )
If former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is to maintain his place at or near the top of Republican presidential polls, it will be no thanks to the assistance of America's conservative political commentators.
Columnists and bloggers of the right have been torching Gingrich with unusual abandon in recent days — charging that the long-tenured politician can't be trusted to adhere to conservative ideals or to stay on message if he is unleashed in a prolonged general election campaign. That could cost Republicans victory, the writers fret, against a president viewed as eminently beatable.
It remains to be seen, in an era when tea party activists with a penchant for bucking authority hold considerable sway in the Republican Party, whether conservative thought leaders like George Will, Peggy Noonan and Charles Krauthammer have the clout to dampen GOP voters' current flirtation with Gingrich.
Although Gingrich would like to compare himself to Ronald Reagan — deemed at one time by some mainstream Republicans to be unelectable — the former Georgia congressman appears to have the opposite problem faced by the "Great Communicator."
Even as he sought the 1980 GOP nomination that would open the door to two terms in the White House, some party mainstays deemed Reagan too conservative. As he tries to win over the party in which Reagan is still the paragon, Gingrich, in contrast, faces repeated questions about whether he is conservative enough. The barbs come despite the fact that the former congressman had a 90% voting record with the American Conservative Union.
"The difference today is that the Republican establishment is much more conservative," said David Crockett, a Republican and professor of political science at Trinity University in Texas. "These are people who think Gingrich is not dependable, or not dependably conservative. That is much different than the criticism Reagan faced."
Though calls for ideological conformity in both major political parties aren't unusual, the arrows aimed at Gingrich have been particularly sharp, often fired by those who base their opinions on close contact with their subject.
The animus, though, is far from universal. Weekly Standard editor William Kristol recently noted that voters have been attracted to Gingrich because they feel "at the end of the day he would make the conservative case against Obama in a way that Romney can't." Talk radio titan Rush Limbaugh has criticized Gingrich in places but said he welcomes a drawn-out nomination contest in hopes it will produce a more conservative GOP nominee.
The harshest assessments in recent days may have come from Will, who mocked the "Olympian sense of exemption from standards and logic" that he said allowed the candidate to claim he was not a Washington lobbyist, despite pocketing $1.6 million in fees from Freddie Mac. The mortgage giant is a bête noir of small-government purists.
"There is almost artistic vulgarity," Will wrote, "in Gingrich's unrepented role as a hired larynx for interests profiting from such government follies as ethanol and cheap mortgages."
A new round of anti-Gingrich anger erupted this week following his retort to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who suggested Gingrich should give back the Freddie Mac payments. Gingrich retorted that he would listen to Romney if his rival would "give back all the money that he's earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees, over his years at Bain," a reference to Romney's investment company.
In what conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt termed "a four-pundit-horsemen-of-political-apocalypse fury," four leading conservatives (Will, Krauthammer, Fox News' Brit Hume and syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg) hammered Gingrich for what they described as anti-capitalist rhetoric right out of the liberal briefing book. They contended the candidate failed to appreciate the "creative destruction" — including lost jobs and shuttered companies — that sometimes must proceed economic growth.
"This kind of attack is what you'd expect from a socialist," Krauthammer scolded on Fox News on Monday night. "And it makes you wonder about the core ideology of Newt himself." Following Thursday night's debate, Gingrich conceded in an interview that he had erred.
But before that, commentators said Gingrich (whom they tend to call "Newt," when the Ginsu knives start glistening) had compounded an earlier offense: his criticism of Rep. Paul D. Ryan for "right-wing social engineering," a plan to reform Medicare. Will, of the Washington Post, resuscitated Ryan's earlier rebuttal: "With allies like that, who needs the left?"