Launching an aggressive attack on rival Newt Gingrich, the Romney campaign is engaging a character-assassination strategy, painting the former speaker as unfit for a position of leadership.
Under pressure as polls show Gingrich leading the GOP candidate field, Mitt Romney began a full-frontal assault on the former speaker, kicked off with a conference call Thursday morning with former-Sen. Jim Talent and former-Gov. John Sununu acting as his attack-dogs. The image of Gingrich that emerged from the call was that of a man whose erratic behavior is dangerous to conservatives.
Talent, who was a congressman under Newt’s leadership in the 1990s, named Newt’s erratic behavior as the primary reason Republicans ousted Newt from the speaker’s office after four years. “We also reached the conclusion after four years that we also could not go on with him as our leader,” Talent explained. “You were in a situation where you would get up in the morning, and you would have the to check the newspaper, the clippings, that was before the internet, to see what the speaker had said that day that you were going to have to clean up after in your own district and I again, I don’t like saying this, but it’s exactly why we did what we did.”
Sununu piled on after a question from Time’s Mark Halperin, asking whether they would be comfortable with Newt as commander-in-chief:
Let me answer that this way: having sat in the White House with a president that was completely reliable, understood completely the depths of which is required to make the kinds of hard decisions the President has to make, I strongly reinforce my endorsement of Mitt Romney as the right man there. The off-the-cuff for example that Gingrich throws out on occasion is a reflection of the off-the-cuff thinking that he goes through to deal with issues and that is not what you want in the commander-in-chief.
Sununu, who worked in President George H. W. Bush’s administration, then added that Newt displayed the “irrational behavior that you do not want in the commander-in-chief.”
This ‘Newt can’t be trusted’ narrative ties in nicely to a second line of attack coming out of the Romney campaign: Newt’s opposition to Paul Ryan’s budget, specifically its central provision of turning Medicare into a private voucher system. Not only are they criticizing Newt for not jumping on the Paul Ryan bandwagon, but they are specifically calling out his comment that the plan was “right-wing social engineering” as evidence that his erratic behavior is dangerous to the conservative movement.
“The Speaker’s remarks just came from nowhere. It’s exactly what we’re talking about. Paul Ryan was completely blindsided,” Talent said. Sununu stressed Gingrich had betrayed the conservative cause:
“[T]o undercut Paul Ryan, is the most self-serving, anti-conservative thing one can imagine happening. He gave the liberals and the Democrats the ammunition they needed to moot, if you will, at least for the time being, Paul Ryan’s presentation…. Gingrich’s undercutting of Paul Ryan proves that he is more concerned about Newt Gingrich than he is about conservative principle.”
In tandem with these attacks, they shored up Romney’s own support of the Ryan plan, which as TPM has noted, is not a great general election strategy.
Karl Rove, anticipating how the upcoming primary battle will unfold, sounded a similar note Thursday in the Wall Street Journal op-ed: “When a man of his self-confidence begins to feel on top of the world, bad things often happen.” Rove has yet to endorse a candidate but, as TPM previously noted, he displays all the signs of a strong Romney supporter.
So that’s the game plan: portray Gingrich as unstable and unfit for office while outflanking him policy-wise on the right. But Rove has a point: part of what will determine who wins the nomination will be whether or not Gingrich keeps his cool or lashes out in the image they just painted of him.
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.