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Why Newt is Romney’s Dream Opponent

In his pursuit of a presidential nomination that a majority of his party’s voters clearly do not want to give him, Mitt Romney has been extraordinarily lucky. Aside from the sheer number of potentially formidable opponents who chose to forgo a run in 2012, the rivals he has actually faced each seem to possess qualities that cast Romney’s own shortcomings in a more favorable light. His authenticity issues, for instance, paled in comparison to those of Tim Pawlenty, who spent most of his brief campaign trying unsuccessfully to convince Tea Partiers that he looked good bellowing anti-government slogans in a tricorner hat. His ideological heresies, meanwhile, might be extensive, but unlike Rick Perry he has never told his conservative tormenters they didn’t have a heart because they disagreed with him. And while Mitt’s buttoned-up, Mormon persona is a bit boring and wonky, Herman Cain has done more than enough to demonstrate the downside of an exciting and unpredictable personality. 

None of Romney’s opponents, however, have greater potential to make him shine in comparison than Newt Gingrich. That’s because Gingrich, the latest candidate to surge in the polls on a wave of anybody-but-Mitt sentiment, is the only candidate with a longer and more contradictory track record than Romney, effectively nullifying the most grievous charge levied against the former Massachusetts governor. Indeed, if Gingrich has a divinely appointed role to play in the ongoing GOP nomination drama, one might argue it’s to make Romney look like a piker when it comes to the art of flip-flopping. 

Consistency is always going to be a problem for a pol of Gingrich’s rare vintage, who made his first congressional bid in 1974 when Mitt Romney was still at Harvard Business School. Indeed, Gingrich anticipated Romney’s moderate-Republican incarnation of the 1990s by more than two decades, serving as Nelson Rockefeller’s southern regional campaign coordinator in 1968 and then running distinctly to the left of his Democratic opponent in his first two congressional races. 

But Gingrich’s most notable flip-flops have been far more recent and abrupt. Both before and during the United States’ intervention in Libya earlier this year, Gingrich seemed to shift positions constantly. And his double back-flip on Paul Ryan’s budget proposal—he was for it, then dismissed it as “right-wing social engineering,” and then endorsed it all over again, all within a couple weeks—nearly destroyed his 2012 campaign before it got off the ground.  

The Gingrich flip-flop that plays most directly into Romney’s hand, however, concerns the former Speaker’s shifting positions on heath care reform. Gingrich’s early and strong support for the idea of an individual mandate (particularly as encompassed in a Heritage Foundation proposal for universal health coverage during the 1990s, but reiterated as recently as 2008) will be hard to ignore once attention is drawn to it. To the extent that it closely mirrors Romney’s own image problems over having enacted an individual health care mandate in Massachusetts, it reinforces the perception that this is a heresy conservatives can be forgiven for having once endorsed.

Likewise, when it comes to the environment, Romney’s prior green leanings are nothing compared to the symbolism of Gingrich’s past support for Mother Earth. The fact that Gingrich was concerned about global climate change (he co-sponsored a Global Warming Prevention Act back in 1989) before he wasn’t hardly distinguishes him from other leading Republicans like Romney, of course. But the specificity and visibility of his support for climate change action—including his decision in 2008 to cut an ad for the Alliance for Climate Protection promoting bipartisan action on climate change—far outdoes anything the other candidates have ever publicly said or done on the issue. The ad, which Gingrich now calls “the single dumbest thing I’ve done,” shows the former Speaker and then-current Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, sitting closely together on a couch with the Capitol in the background, warbling in tandem about the need to come together for climate change solutions. 

It is hard to imagine, short of tenderly kissing Barney Frank after agreeing with him on housing policy, what Gingrich could have possibly done to provide a more damaging optic from the perspective of the Tea Party folk on whom his candidacy now relies. Sitting in front of the Capitol with Pelosi indelibly reminds viewers of his long Beltway insider pedigree. Chatting and smiling with “Princess Nancy” is a supreme symbol of the now largely extinct desire for bipartisanship that Tea Partiers hate intensely, and it’s all the more shocking coming from the man who now regularly refers to the opposition as “the secular socialist machine.” The Pelosi ad is already beginning to pop up all over the blogosphere, and the more Gingrich apologizes, the more he reinforces the impression that he, not Mitt Romney, is the champion flip-flopper in the GOP presidential field. 

Of course, it’s always possible Gingrich can overcome his own record, or convince conservative voters that his years of vicious partisanship and conservative ideological agitation are more important than his moments of cuddling up to Democrats and adopting trendy liberal causes. And maybe Tea Partiers really would prefer to support just about anybody against Romney; it is notable that Gingrich, Cain, and Perry have all in turn managed to reach levels of support in the polls higher than Romney’s support at its peak. But if Romney does win the nomination, it’s increasingly clear he owes it less to his own virtues than to a field of rivals who seem determined to show just how much worse Republicans could do.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.