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Newt Gingrich's mark on the GOP race, and on Mitt Romney

April 25, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich campaigning in Wisconsin in March.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich campaigning in Wisconsin in March. (Jeffrey Phelps / EPA )

Aides to Newt Gingrich disclosed Wednesday that the former House speaker was giving up the race for the GOP presidential nod, finally convinced that Mitt Romney's nomination was inevitable. For someone as smart as Gingrich, it's a wonder it took him so long to recognize that.

OK, that's not fair. A majority of Republican voters clearly were not comfortable with Romney during the debates and the first half of the primary season. They flirted with a series of alternatives, including Gingrich, who won an important early primary in South Carolina. The proliferation of anti-Mitts arguably prevented the kind of head-to-head race that could have boosted a conservative alternative to the former Massachusetts governor.

Yet as numerous pundits have argued, Gingrich was never prepared to be that alternative. He was too disorganized and undisciplined a campaigner. He didn't raise enough money. And he offered too many different messages, some of them so far out of the mainstream (moon colonies, anyone?) or unrealistic (the promise of $2.50-a-gallon gasoline) that voters had trouble taking him seriously.

Nevertheless, Gingrich was also a candidate of big ideas and big pronouncements, and not just about his own role in history. This election wasn't merely important, it was "the most important of our lifetime." He didn't seek to oust Obama, he was going to bring fundamental change to fix a broken federal government. On his first day in office, he'd sign executive orders "to immediately transform the way the executive branch works." The details of his plans might not have matched the grandeur of the rhetoric, but his stated ambitions for the country were as big as his famously large ego.

In comparison to that, Romney came across as small. The differences between the two on policy questions wasn't very large, but there was an enormous gap in the way they presented their ideas.

That impression might not endure. And who knows, maybe Gingrich will be able to transfer some of that big-ideas mojo to Romney during the fall campaign. Still, as Gingrich withdraws from the campaign trail, I can't help but wonder if his main accomplishment was to make Romney seem less consequential. But then, Gingrich isn't quite the historical figure he considers himself to be.

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