The Gloves Come Off

The Republican primary contest is nearing its first real battle. The debates have been skirmishes, but as the time approaches when voters get to weigh in, paid media, phone calls, door knocking, and all the other armaments of political combat come into play. And, just so, the gloves come off between the combatants.

Yesterday, the two front runners, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich traded barbs. Romney called on Gingrich to return the $1.6 million he received from Freddie Mac, the quasi-public home mortgage lender. Gingrich responded by calling on Romney to return “all the money he’s earned bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years.” This is a debate Gingrich does not want to join: It is a debate he must avoid, but it may be too late.

You know that Gingrich is at least a little embarrassed about having been paid so much money by Freddie Mac because, when the issue first surfaced, he said he had been paid as an “historian.” That is pretty laughable. As Romney said yesterday, “That would make him the highest-paid historian in history.”

Gingrich faces three problems on this score. First, he and other Republicans have erected a narrative about what caused the financial collapse of 2008 and Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae are at the heart of that narrative. They are wrong, to be sure: Freddie and Fannie were bit players and the main culprits were the Wall Street firms that bundled the loans into financial vehicles they knew were junk. So, it doesn’t look good for Gingrich that he was advising the very same people he claims were the culprits.

The second problem for Gingrich is deeper. People are very, and rightly, suspicious of money-grubbing influence peddlers. No one begrudges anyone an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. No one, or at least very few, begrudge someone like Bill Gates, who actually created something, the rewards of his inventiveness. But, well-paid Washington lobbyists are a focus of derision for two reasons. First, they are not remunerated for anything they make or invent or manage. They are paid because they have access, because they know the ins-and-outs of Washington, which leads to the second reason. Lobbyists are paid to rig the political game. Most Americans do not have a lobbyist working on their behalf. Unlike the oil and gas companies, we NCR writers do not have special subsidies and tax breaks. Maybe if we hire Gingrich we could get some. So, Gingrich’s $1.6 million is not only seen as ill-gotten, it points to what Americans hate about Washington, that it has become a place where good ideas matter less than good access, where the public good is subverted for private interests, where backroom deals trump open debate. Everything about lobbying is seen as icky. And, Gingrich was, at the end of the day, a lobbyist.

The third problem for Gingrich is the most personal, and just so, the kind of thing that most easily fixes itself in people’s imaginations. People wonder if there is something money-grubbing in his post-speakership activities. He counters the charge that he was lobbying by insisting he didn’t need the money. “I did no lobbying of any kind — period,” Gingrich said. “I'm going to be really direct, OK? I was charging $60,000 a speech. And the number of speeches was going up, not down. Normally, celebrities leave and they gradually sell fewer speeches every year. We were selling more.” Funny. I thought one “gives” a speech or “delivers” a speech. I was not aware that the proper verb is “sell” a speech. Voters understand that politicians like power and fame. But, they worry, and they worry a lot, about politicians who are money-grubbers. There is a reason Jack Abramoff was so vilified: What he did was despicable. Abramoff, of course, was never an elected official and his partner in crime, Tom DeLay, was not lining his own pockets so much as lining the campaign coffers of his allies. Poor Sherman Adams: All he took was a vicuna coat and he still had to resign.

The controversy over his exorbitant salary at Freddie Mac comes at a really bad time for Gingrich. Insiders in Washington have loathed him for a long time, but his stellar debate performances have introduced him to a new generation of Republican voters who do not recall the government shutdown in 1995, or his own ethical lapses that led to his abrupt firing as Speaker by his Republican colleagues. They may have heard about his divorces but most people know someone or work with someone who is divorced who they think is a nice enough person. But, this Freddie Mac business is easy to understand and it paints Gingrich in precisely the wrong light at the wrong time. Romney’s campaign should hammer away relentlessly on it.

During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the thing the Republicans forgot is that most people already knew Bill Clinton was not unaccustomed to stepping outside his marriage for recreational sex. Indeed, he was covered in mud on that score. So, when the Republicans, led by Gingrich, threw the Lewinsky mud at him, some stuck, some didn’t, but all of it just blended in. Had they discovered that Clinton was venal, that would have been something different. That would not have blended in. That would have forced voters to take a step back and re-assess Clinton. The Lewinsky mud did not have that effect. Voters are just getting to know Gingrich or re-acquaint themselves with him. His intelligence shines through on debate stage. His story of redemption and conversion regarding his marriage rings true. But, the image of him as a money-grubber is potentially fatal to his candidacy.

Romney’s baggage from his days as a venture capitalist is different and it is unlikely to harm him in the GOP primaries. As a principal at Bain Capital, he did what private equity specialists do: They buy cheap and sell high, “turn” companies around by slashing payrolls and outsourcing jobs, they close companies that can’t devise a better business plan and invest in those that do. There is something callous about the calculations such firms must make in a market that lives on callousness and which recognizes no value besides the profit margin. But, this is not an indictment with much sway in today’s market-worshipping GOP. If Romney makes it to the general election, you can bet that Team Obama will take a page from the Ted Kennedy playbook on how to defeat Romney, and the entire country will be introduced to the good people in Indiana who worked for Ampad, a company Romney’s firm purchased in 1992, laid off many of the workers and then-rehired others are much-reduced wages and fewer benefits. Romney’s experience in the private sector is a decidedly mixed bag, but it is less repugnant to Republicans than Gingrich’s influence-peddling, I mean, history-peddling.

The next debate is Thursday night, the last before the holidays. The impressions left from the evening’s exchange will last through Christmas and be the subject of much discussion over Yuletide tables in Iowa and New Hampshire. If Romney wants to press home his indictment of Gingrich, he can’t leave it to subordinates nor, in the age of Tivo, to paid media. He needs to land a punch on Gingrich on stage. The other candidates also have an opportunity Thursday, one that Michele Bachmann began to exploit during last Saturday’s debate. If the Republicans plan to make their promise to repeal health care reform a central plank in their election platform, why are the two front-runners men who have, at different times, supported an individual mandate?

The gloves are off. The time is short. For political junkies like me, this is the best time of year.

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