Old political baggage is lighter for GOP front-runners Romney, Gingrich

Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are defying the political odds.

Both are saddled with what some would call prohibitive baggage, yet one of the two is likely to be the GOP’s nominee. Many Republicans openly worry about offering a wounded challenger to President Obama and his mighty war chest, but there are few reasons to suggest that either Republican will be sidelined too significantly by his baggage.

By now, their problems are well-known, and that’s exactly the point.

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Both of the candidates’ skeletons have been endlessly discussed, repeated and condemned, to the point that they’ve lost much of their sting. While still damaging, such baggage hasn't prevented either man from being a front-runner.

Romney’s list of breaks with conservative orthodoxy is long, crowned by the healthcare program he signed as Massachusetts governor, which bears similarities to Obama’s. Political lives were lost over Obama’s healthcare push as House lawmakers tried to withstand the furor over the bill in the 2010 election.

Yet somehow, Romney — who actually helped design and implement an individual mandate in an entire state — is one of the leaders in the race for the Republican nomination.

Romney’s plan has been the source of conservative ire since it was enacted in 2006, thereby dogging him for five years and two presidential runs, yet still he runs near the top of the field.

Compare that with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose primary ideological unorthodoxy was supporting in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. His position on it and subsequent statements defending it contributed significantly to his downfall, as conservatives quickly turned on him.

The big distinction between Romney's and Perry’s skeletons was that Romney’s were well-known, and Perry’s brand-new to national Republicans. Hence, when Perry made other suspect comments — like suggesting gay marriage might be left up to the states — he drew intense heat, while Romney and his promise to be more progressive on gay rights than then-Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) quietly stood by, unattacked.

New baggage is always far worse than old, and that explains Romney’s approach to one of the most politically damaging stories of his run.

After giving vague statements on a union issue in Ohio last month, conservatives eviscerated him for failing to support collective bargaining reform. Romney reacted quickly, clarifying himself overnight and siding with conservatives. His team seemed to sense severe danger in his ambivalence.

Yet on healthcare, he’s remained unmoved by conservative criticism — much to the surprise of many. So what happened?

Romney might have recognized that a new breach of orthodoxy (as in the Ohio issue) was far more damaging than a prior one — no matter how enormous the aged beast of healthcare was.

Gingrich provides another fascinating bit of corroboration for the idea that old baggage isn’t too heavy.

To conservatives, the former Speaker’s grievances are endless. Two divorces prompted by infidelities, a history of flip-flopping on global warming, support for an individual mandate, endorsements of establishment candidates over Tea Party favorites — the list goes on.

Yet it was a very simple set of words that set his candidacy into a tailspin earlier this year.

During the height of the battle over House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) Medicare proposal, Gingrich characterized the plan as “right-wing social engineering.” The reaction was harsher and more damaging than any chatter this year about past marital infidelities. A host of conservative commentators — from Fox News’s Brit Hume to talk radio host Rush Limbaugh — suggested that Gingrich was all but toast.

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Yet again, a fresh miscue proved far more damaging than an amalgamation of some of the most severe skeletons with which a candidate can be saddled.

The implications of this phenomenon are profound.

If this is true, Gingrich and Romney don’t have to waste too much sleep over past indiscretions — personal or political — that have been stirring in voters’ minds for many years. Rather, it’s what they say and do now that will determine their electoral fates.

Americans have proven to be famously gracious over past deeds, particularly when there’s a bad economy around. President Clinton shook off acknowledged affairs with a simple “It’s the economy, stupid” phrase in 1992. And that was with 7.5 percent unemployment.

Surely, Gingrich’s own indiscretions are no likelier to hurt him when there’s 9.1 percent unemployment.

And Ronald Reagan was able to win the presidency even after flipping on a core issue like abortion. Romney can do the same.

A ravaged economy, it seems, is the worst type of baggage, and it will be attached to just one man — President Obama. The White House is the one with the lights on late, worrying; not the upstart leaders for the Republican nomination.