After being widely derided by conservatives as a Kamikaze mission against Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich’s negative campaign is finally starting to pay dividends with a surge in the polls and perhaps the toughest news week of Romney’s entire run. But Romney should already know how dangerous Newt’s campaign playbook is: after all, it’s similar to the one he used to defeat Rick Perry.
It feels like a million years ago already, but before Perry’s self-inflicted wounds turned him into a national punchline, Romney did some damage of his own against what was then perceived as a catastrophic threat to his candidacy.
His Perry plan had two components. On the one hand, Romney attacked the Texas governor hard from the left, accusing Perry of employing “over the top” rhetoric on Social Security by labeling it a Ponzi scheme and suggesting that the program was unconstitutional. This seemed counterintuitive — Romney had spent basically the last six years of his life defending his right flank at all costs, why suddenly use a typical Democratic talking point against a candidate whose biggest strength was his reputation as an authentic Tea Party conservative?
The answer was that the attack wasn’t about ideology at all — it was about electability. While Romney got some blowback from the conservative press over the move, he succeeded in showing Perry was weak against a surefire general election attack and thus less viable than he appeared. Romney made this connection explicit in debates, arguing that the GOP “nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security but is committed to saving Social Security” and that Perry “scared seniors” with his entitlement talk.
Just to hammer home the idea that Romney wasn’t running as the moderate to Perry’s conservative, he attacked him equally as hard over immigration, where he accused the Texas governor of attracting illegal immigrants by providing in-state college tuition to all state residents. This was the second part of his strategy and the combination put Perry off balance, ending with him making perhaps the biggest blunder of his campaign by saying immigration hawks don’t “have a heart.” Within a few short weeks Romney had incredibly turned Perry into both an unacceptable extremist among independents and a dirty hippie among Republicans.
Flash forward several months later, and Gingrich is pursuing a similar path. Given the former Speaker’s deep unpopularity among general election voters, his top priority in the race is to undercut Romney’s electability argument. So what did Newt do? He adopted one of the Democrats’ most powerful attacks — Romney’s Bain Capital layoffs and related rich guy issues — and made it the center of his campaign. Like Romney before him, he took some heat on the right over the move (OK, a lot of heat). But the gains are clear: as Romney failed to effectively rebut the attacks, he generated grist for stories about whether he can really match up with President Obama, thus helping to revive Gingrich’s campaign.
And just like Romney’s attacks on Perry’s immigration record, Gingrich is running a simultaneous campaign against “Massachusetts Moderate Mitt Romney” on issues like abortion, gun control, and taxes to make clear to voters that he isn’t running to his opponent’s left.
Perhaps there’s a page in Romney’s old playbook that explains how to make this pincer-move attack go away?
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.