Why Does Anyone Listen to Newt Gingrich?

by Paul Hogarth on April 15, 2010

In 1998, days after the November mid-term elections, House Speaker Newt Gingrich resigned from Congress – due to a voter backlash against Republicans for the Monica Lewinsky affair. Years later, Gingrich would admit he was having an extra-marital affair during that time – while leading the charge to impeach Bill Clinton. We then didn’t hear much from him for a better part of 10 years – but since Barack Obama became President, now he is everywhere. In 2009, Gingrich made more TV appearances on Meet the Press than any other guest – even though he hasn’t been elected dogcatcher since 1996. After Democrats lose elections, they go away. How often do we hear from Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis these days – or even in the past twenty years? But while Gingrich clearly craves this attention, why is the media playing along?

As Republicans continue their “Party of No” strategy that has earned them a 28% approval rating, Newt Gingrich is there – with an eye to run for President in 2012. Last week, he spoke at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference – where he urged the “end of Obamaism.” After the 2010 elections, Gingrich advocates a two-year strategy of complete obstruction. Once a Republican President wins in 2012, he said, they will go ahead and “repeal every radical bill passed by this [socialist] machine.”

Of course, a lot has changed since 1994. The Southern re-alignment to the GOP has pretty much run its course, Prop 187 and other efforts to scapegoat immigrants have turned the fastest growing demographic (Latinos) into staunch Democrats, and young people have voted in growing numbers in the last three elections. Even Bill Clinton acknowledges that we have evolved to the point that DOMA and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell should be repealed. And as Chris Bowers has argued, Michael Dukakis would have won with a 2008 electorate.

But one thing has not changed – Newt Gingrich is still unpopular. After he shut down the federal government in late 1995 out of spite and argued against women in the military because men are “biologically driven to hunt giraffes,” only 25% of Americans approved of him in 1996 – with 57% disapproved. Thirteen years later, with Speaker Gingrich a distant memory, he was at 35% approval – with 46% disapproval. That’s a remarkably long time to stay unpopular. Anyone who thinks he can win the White House is delusional.

Still, he is suddenly taken seriously by the media – after a ten-year hiatus where nobody asks what he was doing. During 2009, NBC’s Meet the Press had him on five times – more than the influential program had any other politician. What’s even worse is that current Speaker Nancy Pelosi made zero appearances on the show, as did all 3 other living ex-House Speakers – Dennis Hastert, Jim Wright and Tom Foley.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. Eric Boehlert of Media Matters wrote:

[A]s often happens when I read breaking, this-is-what-Newt-said dispatches, I couldn’t help thinking, ‘Who cares what Newt Gingrich thinks?’ And I don’t mean that in the partisan sense. I mean it in the journalistic sense: How do Gingrich’s daily pronouncements about the fundamental dishonesty of Democrats (Newt’s favorite phrase) translate into news? Why does the press, 10 years after Gingrich was forced out of office, still treat his every partisan utterance as a newsworthy occurrence? In other words, why does the press still treat him like he’s Speaker of the House? It’s unprecedented.

Imagine if Tom Foley – who like Gingrich served as House Speaker for five years, until his party did badly in an election and he left Congress – were to suddenly re-appear six years later, and then be a guest on talk shows to attack the Bush-Cheney Administration. That’s basically the role Newt Gingrich is playing now – a partisan attack dog disguised as an elder statesman, urging Republicans to run on repealing Obama’s health care bill.

What was Newt Gingrich doing, after being forced out of Congress 12 years ago? He played a “behind the scenes” role in the conservative movement – Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Distinguished Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute and occasional Fox News commentator. He also divorced his second wife (he divorced his first wife in 1980 while she was undergoing cancer surgery), and married the 24-year old he was schlepping with while impeaching Bill Clinton. His new wife converted him to Catholicism, and he then wrote a book called Rediscovering God in America.

I have a hard time believing his sudden re-emergence is an accident. Gingrich must have waited those eight years when George Bush was in power – hoping that time would heal the wounds of his unpopularity and his massive ego could ride him to the White House.

But it’s not going to work. Because no one should care what Newt Gingrich says.

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