Presidential campaign's end could lead to another resurrection for Gingrich

Newt Gingrich has flirted with a presidential campaign on and off for the past 15 years, but one concern always seemed foremost on his mind — how a bid might affect his many business interests.

His holdings are vast and include heading a media company, a consulting firm and an advocacy group that regularly takes in more than $10 million per year, as well as offering commentary on Fox News for a reported $1 million per year.

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Actually making a bid affects those economic interests by threatening the brand he’s developed. A poor performance on the campaign trail could damage the image he’s worked hard to restore since resigning from the Speakership and admitting marital infidelity.

In the intervening years, Gingrich has apologized repeatedly for his moral failings and pumped out an impressive collection of religiously themed merchandise. He’s also made a bid to become an intellectual leader of the Republican Party. 

His restoration, in fact, seemed complete when House Republicans turned to him for advice and ideas following President Obama’s election. Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.) — then the No. 2 Republican in the House — and Gingrich talked “all the time,” according to a report in The Washington Post. And Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the point man on the GOP budget, exchanged BlackBerry messages about the tax code with Gingrich on Christmas Day 2008, according to The New York Times.

Since then, the former Speaker has only grown stronger — so strong that, despite lingering questions about his baggage, he felt 2012 was the right time for a bid for president. As he told an audience earlier this year, the many years out of elected office gave him the “chance to renew [his] energy and thoughts.”

And then, with energy and thoughts renewed, the bid launched. Disastrously. 

Incredibly, Gingrich managed to offend each of the three major factions of the Republican Party in a few short months.

First, he told the Christian Broadcasting Network that his infidelity might have been prompted by too much hard work and love of country. That excuse immediately threatened to undo all the religious credibility he’d spent so many years restoring and raised the eyes of many suspicious social conservatives.

Then, more disastrously, his status as a leading economic conservative crumbled. During an infamous appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he called Ryan’s budget plan “right-wing social engineering.” The reaction from all conservative corners was swift and fierce. Gingrich’s role as one of the movement’s premier thought leaders was quickly smashed by other voices, including Ryan’s.

Gingrich’s credibility on the third major wing of conservatism — foreign policy — also was hurt after a series of Fox appearances in which he dramatically reversed his view on Libya. His first imperative — when Obama was deliberating about intervention — was strong and concise: “Exercise a no-fly zone this evening,” he told Fox News.

Two weeks later, he was similarly concise, though with a very different message: “I would not have intervened,” he told the network — not surprisingly, after Obama had decided to intervene.

The apparent flip-flop drew a swift rebuke that Gingrich tried countering, but to few people’s satisfaction. Now his consistency on foreign policy was questioned.

All of that has led to today, with Gingrich’s campaign $1 million in debt, his senior staff gone and his poll numbers plummeting.

Now he’s faced with a choice: Should he cut his losses, get out of the race as soon as possible and hope that the public’s reliably short memory wipes the campaign’s shame away? Or should he continue campaigning to try to recapture some of the credibility he’s shed since his launch?

Count Mark McKinnon — a former George W. Bush adviser and co-founder of No Labels — in the latter camp.

“I think he will hang on indefinitely to save face,” McKinnon said. “He can run on fumes and just show up at the debates.”

Gingrich’s bid, McKinnon claimed, always was about furthering his brand, although in the end, he wound up threatening it more than anything.

Professor Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said there’s no good face-saving option for Gingrich at this point.

“You don’t want to be the first well-known candidate to drop out,” Sabato said. “That is embarrassing. You also don’t want to stay on the stage so long that you become a joke.”

Having said that, Sabato thinks there might be a best bad time.

“I suppose if Gingrich does as poorly as observers expect in Iowa and New Hampshire, that would be the time,” he said.

If Gingrich does drop out, he’d face a withering set of political obituaries, rehashing every errant word and move.

But as Gingrich certainly knows best, that wouldn’t be the end for him, just as it wasn’t the end for him when he resigned from Congress in 1998. It would just be time for another resurrection, another book or another DVD.

Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill. Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com