Why Conservatives Love Newt Gingrich

Yesterday saw Mitt Romney launch his first major attack on Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign with an ad that highlights one big distinction between the former Massachusetts governor and the former House Speaker — their personal lives:

There’s no doubt that this is a swipe against Gingrich for his long history of adultery, as well as his recent conversion to Catholicism. What’s more, Romney has followed up this ad with attacks from two campaign surrogates, former senators Jim Talent and John Sunnunu:

“If the nominee is Newt Gingrich, then the election is going to be about the Republican nominee, which is exactly what the Democrats want,” Talent said, per Reid Epstein. “If they can make it about the Republican nominee, then the president is going to win.” […]

“For Newt Gingrich in an effort of self-aggrandizement to come out and throw a clever phrase that had no other purpose than to make him sound a little smarter than the conservative leadership,” Sununu said. “Gingrich’s undercutting of Paul Ryan proves that he’s more concerned about Newt Gingrich than he is about conservative principles.”

It’s obvious that Romney needs to damage Gingrich — if Gingrich finishes December with strong numbers in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, then Romney’s path to the nomination, if it still exists, becomes a lot more complicated. But I have my doubts about these lines of attack; for all of his flaws, Gingrich has unimpeachable conservative credentials, and it will take more than shots at his electability to damage his stock among Republican primary voters. It’s important to remember, as Nate Silver points out, that Gingrich was a historic leader for Republicans in the late 80s and 90s. Under his leadership, Silver writes, “the Republican Party finally broke the New Deal coalition that had dominated American politics for more than a half-century, moving policy substantially to the right.” It’s hard to imagine a better credential.

What’s more, Gingrich was the conservative standard-bearer against Bill Clinton, the original object of right-wing hatred. Yes, he left office under a cloud of scandal and corruption, but— as evidenced by his success as a conservative speaker and commentator— this wasn’t enough to damage his standing among Republican voters. Gingrich fought the good fight, and this gives him a lifetime pass for a whole host of transgressions that would sink any other candidate (see: Rick Perry and immigration). In some sense, Gingrich is the GOP’s Napoleon — a famed general who has returned from exile to lead the troops for one last battle.

This puts Romney in a tough spot. On one hand, if he’s to protect his path to the nomination, Romney will have to unload on Gingrich (assuming he doesn’t implode of his own accord). But this runs the risk of alienating conservative voters, and harming his position among Republicans writ large. We’ll see how he threads the needle, but my hunch is that he won’t find much success.