Newt Gingrich vs.the Establishment: South Carolina Sets Up Intra-GOP Conflict

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Eric Thayer / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich speaks with his wife Callista and his granddaughter Maggie, far right, at his side at his South Carolina primary election night rally in Columbia, South Carolina, Jan. 21, 2012.

“The Establishment is right to be worried about a Gingrich nomination,” the winner of the South Carolina Republican primary, declared Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. “Because a Gingrich nomination means that we’re going to change things, we’re going to make the Establishment very uncomfortable.”

The Republican Establishment, such as it can be defined, is uncomfortable, alright. It is likely to re-mobilize, as it did in Iowa last month, to deflate his candidacy before Florida’s Jan. 31 primary, in which a victory could turn Newt from an upstart into the likely nominee. Establishment money will flow to pro-Romney SuperPACs. Establishment pundits and politicos will enumerate (again) Gingrich’s flaws and foibles.

But the Establishment isn’t striking back for the reasons Newt claims. In reality, Gingrich’s platform does almost nothing to threaten the Establishment’s core interests. It’s his candidacy that has the GOP powers that be gnashing their teeth. But as he tries to keep Mitt Romney from mounting a comeback after his South Carolina humiliation, Gingrich’s anti-Establishment pose might be the best thing going for him.

(PHOTOS: Newt Gingrich’s Life in Pictures)

Before going any farther, it’s worth asking who this ‘Establishment’ really is. That’s tricky, but let’s stipulate that it roughly consists of a couple of hundred Republicans. They include the party’s most powerful (and wealthy) Washington lobbyists; its senior members of Congress; marquee television and newspaper pundits; and a gaggle of elected officials, financiers and all-purpose operators around the nation. More specifically, Newt’s key Establishment adversaries include the lobbyists Wayne Berman and Ron Kaufman, columnists George Will and Charles Krauthammer, elected GOP big shots like Chris Christie and Nikki Haley, and party elder statesmen like former President George H.W. Bush.

No one on that list is particularly threatened by a Gingrich presidency, at least not beyond the usual cost of backing the wrong candidate. Certainly not much in Newt’s past record suggests as much. Yes, as a Congressional back-bencher in Congress in the 1980s, Newt was impatient with his party’s more moderate, deal-making leaders (notably including Bush). His 1994 Contract With America did call for Congressional term limits, an idea despised by Washington lifers of both parties.

(MORE: Gingrich South Carolina Upset Raises Chances of Long Nomination Fight)

But since then, Newt has inarguably lived the good life of an Establishment man. As House Speaker he made no serious effort to take on the culture of Washington. Instead, he oversaw an expanded alliance between K Street lobbyists and congressional Republicans. And after he left Congress–purged by his colleagues, not for threatening their interests but for botching the politics of Bill Clinton’s impeachment–he settled comfortably into a life of lucrative speaking and influence-peddling.

What about his current platform? On Meet the Press, Gingrich detailed the case this way: “We’re going to demand real change in Washington, real audit of the Federal Reserve, real knowledge about where hundreds of billions of dollars have gone. And I think if you look at a lot of these guys, they have really good reason to worry about an honest, open candidate who has no commitment to them, who has no investment in them. And I think they should be worried because we intend to change the Establishment, not get along with it.”

Given that scores of Washington Republicans are already on record as supporting a Fed audit, Newt’s one specific argument above isn’t very persuasive. So what about the rest of his platform? Well, he favors huge tax cuts–probably the Establishment’s top priority. He wants to cut regulations, slash entitlements, and kill off ObamaCare–all sure fire applause lines at the American Enterprise Institute. True, his radical plan to rein in “activist judges” has drawn withering reviews from some certifiable Establishment men. But that’s not enough to explain the strong opposition to him in the sitting rooms of McLean, Virginia, which has become to the Republican Establishment what Georgetown once was to the Democratic elite (and where, incidentally, Newt himself lives). The bottom line is that Gingrich has more in common with Ross Douthat than with Ross Perot.

To the extent Newt threatens the Establishment, it’s because of his electability–or lack thereof. The GOP’s mandarins see Gingrich’s nomination as a sure way to blow their chance of deposing Barack Obama. They see Gingrich as the political equivalent of a Fukushima nuclear plant worker, with polls showing him to be lethally irradiated by his negative approval ratings. Whereas Mitt Romney is running about even with Barack Obama in head-to-head polling, Newt loses by double-digit margins. Sure, those numbers could change if Gingrich beats Romney and wins the nomination, with all the accolades it entails. On the other hand, his grandiosity syndrome may kick in, as it has before, and render him a laughing stock. Hence the many Establishment Republicans now saying things like, “Newt means losing 45 states.”

In the end, though, it might not matter why the Establishment opposes Gingrich, only that it does. Playing the role of insurgent suits Gingrich perfectly. Some of it is characterological: Gingrich is always at his best when he’s storming an enemy position; his problem has always been holding that hilltop. But more important is the political moment. While the Tea Party’s spirit has dimmed some, it’s hardly dead. And that spirit wasn’t merely a reaction to Barack Obama. It was about challenging the Establishment of both parties, rejecting the wisdom of coastal financial and media elites who looked down at “real” Americans while wrecking the economy. It appears that the more Mitt Romney is anointed by this insider crowd, the more the GOP’s activist base is determined to reject him. Gingrich seems to think so, at least, and is playing brilliantly to the sentiment–spinning the Establishment’s calculation about his electability into a commentary on his values and independence. If he manages to defeat Mitt Romney, he should send thank-you notes to his neighbors in McLean.