A growing number of current and former congressional Republicans may have found someone they dislike even more than President Barack Obama: Newt Gingrich.
As the former House Speaker has risen to the top of the Republican presidential field, more and more GOP lawmakers past and present are all but shouting from the rooftops about what a dangerously bad idea it would be to have Gingrich as the Republican standard bearer or president of the United States.
They think that Gingrich – who recently suggested the America’s child labor laws should be changed so poor children could work in their schools as janitors – is brilliant, but they also make no bones about saying he is an erratic personality who carries more baggage than a Boeing 747.
They cringe at the memory of the thrice-married, twice-divorced Gingrich’s tumultuous tenure in the 1990s as speaker of the House. They remember him as an undisciplined, ego-centric know-it-all and a rules-don’t-apply-to-me leader. They recall that things got so bad that just four years after Gingrich led Republicans to control of the House for the first time in 40 years, some rank-and-file GOP House members – and even Gingrich’s own leadership team – mounted an unsuccessful attempt to try to oust him.
In an extraordinary violation of the late President Ronald Reagan’s so-called 11th Commandment against Republicans criticizing fellow Republicans, many GOP lawmakers are warning that the personality traits and bad habits seen in Speaker Gingrich would likely resurface in spades in President Gingrich.
Gingrich’s rivals for the Republican presidential nomination offered their own unsparing critique of the ex-speaker during a televised debate Saturday night.
“If you cheat on your wife, you’ll cheat on your business partner,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said.
“Character issues do count,” former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania added. “I would not say it’s a disqualifier, but certainly it’s a factor … trust is everything.”
Gingrich called his past “a real issue” and acknowledged that “I’ve made mistakes at times.”
“I’ve had to go to God for forgiveness,” he added.
But many current and former members of Congress aren’t in a forgiving mood when it comes to Gingrich’s candidacy.
“He’s a guy of 1,000 ideas and the attention span of a one-year-old,” Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina told The Hill newspaper in April. “His discipline and his attention to any individual thing is not his strong suit.”
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who served in the House with Gingrich, has perhaps been the most vocal of the anti-Gingrich Republicans. Over the span of two Sundays, Coburn has appeared on weekend news shows and unequivocally stated that Gingrich doesn’t have what it takes in temperament or talent to be president.
“There’s all types of leaders,” Coburn said on “Fox News Sunday” last week. “Leaders that instill confidence. Leaders that are somewhat abrupt and brisk. Leaders that have one standard for the people that they’re leading and a different standard for themselves. I just found his leadership lacking, and I’m not going to go into greater detail than that.”
But others have. Several point to Gingrich’s ethical problems.
He was the first speaker ever to be reprimanded by the full House and paid a record $300,000 fine for misleading a House Ethics Committee investigation. He also lead the charge for President Bill Clinton’s impeachment for having an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky while Gingrich himself was having an affair with a congressional aide who is now his third wife.
Detractors talk about how they tired of having to publicly defend Gingrich over controversial statements or actions, like when he said in 1995 that poor treatment he receiving during a flight aboard Air Force One helped forced a shutdown of the federal government later that year.
“Newt Gingrich was a disaster as speaker,” Rep. Peter King told McClatchy Newspapers. “Everything was self-centered. There was a lack of intellectual discipline.”
A painting of a smiling Gingrich with one hand outstretched and a copy of his “Contract with America” in the other adorns the Speaker’s Lobby outside the chamber of the House of Representatives. But there is little adoration for Gingrich among Republicans on Capitol Hill.
As of last week, Gingrich had only eight endorsements from current Republican members of Congress. Four of the eight came from House members from his home state of Georgia. Only two of the eight came from Republicans who were in the House when Gingrich was speaker.
By contrast, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Gingrich’s main rival for the Republican presidential nomination, has more than 50 congressional endorsements. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a Tea Party favorite who’s obviously supporting the presidential bid of his father, Rep. Ron Paul, has blasted both Romney and Gingrich as wrong for the Republican Party.
But the younger Paul offered a more damning take on Gingrich’s candidacy in an opinion-editorial piece in The Des Moines Register recently.
“What worries me is that the voters are being sold a bill of goods in Gingrich,” Paul wrote.
He reminded readers that Gingrich, through one of his companies, received more than $1.6 million from Freddie Mac and took the money while he was criticizing the troubled mortgage giant.
“He is part of the Washington establishment I was sent to fight,” Paul wrote. “He has been wrong on many of the major issues of the day, and he was taken money from those who helped cause the housing crisis and create millions of foreclosures.”
The elder Paul (R-Tex.) delivered a punch of his own last week when his campaign aired a television ad that amplified Paul’s assertion that Gingrich is guilty of “serial hypocrisy.”
Needless to say, Romney’s campaign is downright giddy by all the GOP Gingrich-bashing. It helps shift the conversation, at least for now, about Republican perceptions that Romney isn’t a true conservative, that he flip-flops on key issues and that he’s the godfather of Obama’s health care law because he implemented a similar plan when he was Massachusetts governor.
Romney’s campaign put on an email press release on Friday with a collection of some of the more caustic quotes about Gingrich from people within his own party.
Gingrich still leads Romney in polls in Iowa, which holds its first-in-the-nation caucus Jan. 3.