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Newt Gingrich and the GOP's leadership bankruptcy

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It's a measure of the leadership bankruptcy in the Republican Party that Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker chased from that illustrious post years ago by a combination of ethical lapses and personal hubris, should find himself politically resurrected in some public-opinion polls.

Largely by the process of elimination in a field of GOP presidential hopefuls that has produced no favorite warmly embraced by the voters, Speaker Gingrich has talked his way back from oblivion by a series of debate performances marked by his special brand of pompous pseudo-intellectualism.

With his egomaniacal sense of superiority that dismisses the collection of unimpressive competitors for his party's 2012 nomination, Mr.  Gingrich somehow has managed to elbow his way into what is somewhat laughably called the top tier of candidates vying the lukewarm choice of their party.

The latest survey for CNN has Mr. Gingrich with 22 percent support, close behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney with 24 percent, while businessman Herman Cain has faded to 14. The most recent McClatchey newspaper poll has Mr. Romney at 23, Mr. Gingrich at 19 and Mr. Cain 17.

Mr. Gingrich presents himself somehow as a political jewel whose brilliance somehow has escaped public recognition up to now. But the book on him is riddled with a history of self-serving braggadocio, misrepresentation and overreaching of his record as an legislative achiever, academic and historian.

He was self-canonized as the leader of the Gingrich Revolution of the early 1990s that won control of the House with his Contract With America that thereafter swept through the House but never got by the Senate to become law. He resigned the speakership and quit Congress in the aftermath of a poor Republican showing in the 1998 congressional elections.

The latest rap against him is his alleged receipt of at least $1.6 million in consulting fees from Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage enterprise of which he has been a critic. Mr. Gingrich just the other day brushed off a question about the payments, saying he was not a lobbyist for it and was paid for his expertise in the field.

In a classic Gingrich response, he sought to turn this particular sow's ear into a silk purse. "It reminds people that I know a great deal about Washington," he purred. With a dig at President Obama after saying the new Newt was going to refrain, he added: "We tried four years of amateur ignorance and it didn't work very well," apparently referring to Mr. Obama's less than three years in office. "So having someone who actually knows Washington might be a really good thing."

Such dismissive observations require a suspension of memory about Mr. Gingrich's most famous political misstep, when at the end of 1995 President Bill Clinton called his bluff on closing down the federal government in their fight over the budget. The resulting closedown that included national parks and other facilities drew public ire toward the Republicans and forced Mr. Gingrich to back down.

The CNN poll that had him replacing Mr. Cain as Governor Romney's closest challenger also found that Mr.  Gingrich's support was the most committed of all the GOP presidential candidates, suggesting a staying power that others lack. But it says nothing about how he is regarded outside his party, where his partisanship and repeated attacks on Democrats as advocates of the "socialist welfare state" make him among the most despised of Republicans.

Speaker Gingrich's latest tack, presenting himself as the wise and seasoned politician who knows Washington best and can most effectively wrest the reins from the amateurs next year, is clearly a strategy of getting the GOP nomination and worrying about the general election later. It's a view that Republicans who share his desire to win back the White House need to reconsider.

Certainly, a Gingrich nomination would be gleefully welcomed by the practitioners of "amateur ignorance" who currently occupy the turf. Governor Romney may not thrill the Republican conservatives who rule the party, but he probably offers the GOP an infinitely better chance than Know-It-All Newt to win critical independent and Democratic votes a year from now.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption." His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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