Thomas Fitzgerald: Out of tune with the GOP?

Newt Gingrich had a rough week campaigning for the GOP presidential nomination. Above, he spoke in Waterloo, Iowa.
Newt Gingrich had a rough week campaigning for the GOP presidential nomination. Above, he spoke in Waterloo, Iowa. (CHARLIE NEIBERGALL / Associated Press)

Gingrich, like his "Dancing Queen" ringtone, didn't play well in Iowa.

Posted: May 22, 2011

Some idiot had forgotten to mute his cellphone. Right in the middle of Newt Gingrich's speech, it trilled the chorus of Abba's "Dancing Queen." People in the Olde Main Brewery in Ames, Iowa, craned their necks to see who had breached decorum.

Muttering, Gingrich pulled the phone from his pocket and sheepishly switched it off. He'd been trying to connect, but the interruption knocked him off his stride. Another misstep in the brutal, can't-look-away car wreck that was the first week of his presidential campaign.

Most candidates are packaged down to the minutest detail. They wear clothes that project strength. They do things regular people do, such as bowling. They engineer each sentence to avoid alienating anyone.

But Gingrich was feeling the beat from the tambourine in his soul, not calculating how to impress GOP primary voters - a Lee Greenwood patriotic ode or "Amazing Grace" would have been safer. Afterward, Gingrich felt the need to tell reporters why he adored Mamma Mia!

"When they do 'Dancing Queen' in the movie . . . I love that sequence," he said, "the energy and the excitement."

Gingrich certainly brought excitement. First, he went on NBC's Meet the Press and blasted the House-passed budget written by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, saying that converting Medicare into a voucher program was too "radical" to become law. "I don't think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering," Gingrich said.

Gingrich may have accurately expressed the plan's political viability, but party leaders and conservative pundits howled - some said his campaign was dead on the spot. What the candidate hadn't gauged was how quickly the Ryan budget had become a litmus test for true believers.

On the same TV show, Gingrich violated another tenet of modern Republican orthodoxy, saying he thought that requiring people to buy health insurance was a good idea. Of course, that mandate is at the heart of the right's opposition to President Obama's health-care law; Mitt Romney's embrace of the same approach in Massachusetts has hurt his own cause.

Later, Gingrich backpedaled: He hadn't meant it, he'd been taken out of context, he'd repeal Obamacare.

It didn't work. In retreat, he just looked like a weasel.

Perhaps Gingrich will do better Sunday morning on CBS's Face the Nation.

The last time Gingrich was this prominent, in the mid-1990s, cellphones weren't smart. They didn't take pictures or record sound and video. And there were no Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, let alone the many websites devoted to politics and 24-hour cable outlets. Even though his Meet the Press moment would have made news, the controversy wouldn't have reached such a roar.

Everything gets out these days.

When a man berated Gingrich in Dubuque, Iowa, the attack was everywhere in minutes: "You're an embarrassment to our party," the voter said. "Why don't you get out before you make a bigger fool of yourself?"

Many in the Washington conservative establishment were eager to pour lighter fluid on the flame. Gingrich does not have a huge loyalty reservoir. He brought Republicans to power in the House after 40 years in 1994, but his reign as speaker was tumultuous, and exhausted colleagues tossed him out four years later. Many who admire him don't much like him.

"He can sure as hell throw grenades and make things blow up," said Mark McKinnon, a strategist for President George W. Bush. "Newt should keep his mouth shut," Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma told ABC News last week. Earlier this year, Coburn said Gingrich was not stable enough to be president.

"This is exactly what everybody who has ever worked for or around him said was his problem," Rich Galen, a former Gingrich aide, said on the Politico website last week. "Sooner or later, I suspect, unfortunately, the campaign is going to collapse from the top because people are going to say, 'I love him and he's really smart, but he can't be president.' "

Voters want the person with the nuclear launch codes to be calm and collected. In his defense, Gingrich said most politicians are boring. He's fermenting ideas!

"It's going to take a while for the news media to realize that you're covering something that happens once or twice a century, a genuine grassroots campaign of very big ideas," Gingrich said. "I expect it to take a while for it to sink in."

He said that in the Iowa city of Waterloo. Insert joke here.


Contact politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/BigTent

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