Newt Gingrich: Challenges ahead, but 'he's still dangerous'

Newt Gingrich is taking flak from his GOP rivals and some conservative commentators on things like Freddie Mac and his ideas about the federal judiciary. But as his fellow debaters have learned, he can be a well-armed and highly-confident opponent.

Jeff Haynes/Reuters
Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks at a meet and greet session at the Willow Ridge Golf Course in Fort Dodge, Iowa, Thursday December 15, 2011.

Professor Gingrich was lecturing again Saturday – this time on the history of the US judiciary, referencing Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt.

It was a conference call from Iowa on “how to bring the federal courts back within the constraints of the US Constitution.” Fascinating stuff, if a discussion of habeas corpus, Marbury v. Madison, and 14 German saboteurs ordered executed by FDR are what turns you on.

Obviously Newt Gingrich thinks the federal judiciary is an issue worth campaigning on. Railing on “activist judges” is part of any conservative’s standard operating procedure. And in Gingrich’s case, it’s a way of taking the political discussion somewhere other than Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

His having been paid $1.6 million by one of the now-disgraced mortgage industry giants – who cares whether he was actually “lobbying” or not? – continues to be something not just Michele Bachmann is interested in. Civil fraud charges by the Securities and Exchange Commission against Fannie’s and Freddie’s former chief executives, announced just hours after Bachmann’s Thursday night debate attack, certainly didn’t help Gingrich any.

The Monitor's Weekly news Quiz 12/11-12/16

Then there’s the Wall Street Journal’s long editorial on the subject Saturday. Bottom line:

“The real history lesson here may be what the Freddie episode reveals about Mr. Gingrich's political philosophy. To wit, he has a soft spot for big government when he can use it for his own political ends,” the newspaper editorialized. “Mr. Gingrich would help his candidacy if he stopped defending his Freddie payday, admitted his mistake, and promised to atone as President by shrinking Fannie and Freddie and ultimately putting them out of business.”

But back to the Gingrich and the courts. It’s not just court-loving liberals who are critical of what the former House Speaker is proposing, which includes abolishing certain judgeships.

In the National Review Online Friday, noted conservatives Ed Whelan and Matthew Franck take turns knocking "Gingrich's Awful Proposal to Abolish Judgeships,” as their exchange is titled.

“I have often said that judicial independence is something we could stand to have a lot less of,” Franck writes. “But there are right ways and wrong ways to bring activist judges to heel. [Gingrich’s proposal] is a very badly wrong way.”

Whelan (who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and served in the Justice Department under former president George W. Bush) calls it “constitutionally unsound and politically foolish.”

“This is going to be a controversial conversation,” Gingrich accurately observed in his conference call Saturday.

Much can happen between now and the Iowa caucuses Jan 3. No more debates, so it’s a ground game in the Hawkeye State – which is why Gingrich held another conference call there Saturday, this one with supporters and potential supporters he took questions from. And oh, by the way, repeatedly urged to become precinct captains.

How’s Gingrich doing now that he’s soared to front-runner status?

Some recent headlines indicate the challenges he faces: “Newt Gingrich’s general election prospects look bleak” (Washington Post) “Gingrich Momentum Slows, Polls Suggest” (New York Times) “Iowa GOP governor unsure of Gingrich's discipline” (Associated Press)

“The debates have held out the alluring promise of a New Newt,” National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote this week. “But beware: The Old Newt lurks.”

As Republican Mark McKinnon and Democrat George Caudill point out at Newsweek’s Daily Beast website, “Politics is all about momentum and timing. You want your curve headed up, not down, as you go into Election Day.”

It was not good news for Gingrich that the governor of a state he hopes to do well in – Nikki Haley of South Carolina, third in the nominating contest behind Iowa and New Hampshire – just endorsed Mitt Romney.

But there’s a certain healthy looseness about the Gingrich campaign, somehow lacking the desperation one feels now and then from his Republican rivals. And as his fellow debaters have learned, he can be a well-armed and highly-confident opponent.

“Most of those around President Barack Obama would still prefer to take on Gingrich rather than the better funded and organized Mitt Romney,” writes Glenn Thrush at “But if Romney is a conventional enemy, Gingrich poses an asymmetrical threat: He’s simply a more dangerous, talented and unpredictable political actor than Romney.”

“Romney is playing not to lose and Newt thinks he has nothing to lose,” Phil Singer, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton in 2008, told Politico. “He’s facile enough to sound convincing on almost anything and has the gift of framing complex issues in their simplest terms…. He’s more dangerous as a surrogate than a candidate, but he’s still dangerous.”

The Monitor's Weekly news Quiz 12/11-12/16

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.