Same Schtick, Different Day

DERRY, NEW HAMPSHIRE—Newt Gingrich is a master of Stalinist history. In the New Hampshire campaign’s closing days, he made much of his own role in the job creation of the Reagan and Clinton years (though he never mentioned Clinton by name) and contrasted himself with his rivals by touting his ability to reach across the aisle during Clinton’s presidency. As Gingrich recounted it to a crowd of 300 gathered in a high-school auditorium in Derry late yesterday afternoon, he and Clinton both “concluded very early on that we really wanted to get together to do something for the country.” They would meet privately, he said, while bashing each other publicly.

His account is notable for its obvious omissions. It makes no mention of Gingrich’s forcing Clinton to close the government down at the end of 1995 (Clinton wouldn’t accede to Gingrich’s demands to cut Medicare). It leaves out Gingrich’s decision to have congressional Republicans campaign for office in 1998 on a platform of impeaching Clinton over his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, even as Gingrich was involved in an extramarital affair with his current wife, Calista. 

Nor are these the only anomalies in Gingrich’s New Hampshire stump speech. At his first event after arriving from Iowa on Wednesday morning, Gingrich took a question from an old veteran who complained that the VA hospital in Manchester had been shuttered, compelling veterans to trek down to Boston when they needed extensive medical tests or treatments.  Gingrich now begins his talks with a pledge to reopen the Manchester hospital, which would be standard-issue politics had the Republican Party and Gingrich himself not turned against such governmental endeavors. It’s the kind of project that Republicans now routinely deride as pork barrel and “European”—a term of opprobrium that Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Gingrich repeatedly invoke to describe President Barack Obama.

In the closing day of the New Hampshire campaign, most candidate rallies, Gingrich’s included, were a little larger than they’d been previously. They don’t begin to compare, however, with the rallies that Obama and Hillary Clinton held here four years ago, to which thousands of people thronged. Moreover, while Obama and Clinton were speaking largely to their dedicated followers, the New Hampshirites attending candidate events this year include skeptics, comparison shoppers, and liberal provocateurs. At Gingrich’s Derry rally yesterday, five of the first six questions he took had a distinctly liberal thrust, though each questioner was the soul of decorum and, remarkably, began his or her question by praising something Gingrich had said and then teasing out its implications. The first such questioner applauded the candidate for advocating paychecks over food stamps, then asked him what he’d do about Wal-Mart, many of whose employees must rely on food stamps to supplement their meager paychecks. (Gingrich said he’d lower unemployment to the point where workers could bid up their Wal-Mart wages, though this didn’t happen even in the late '90s when unemployment was below 5 percent.) The final questioner praised Gingrich effusively, lamented the super-PAC ads against him, and asked him if he supported campaign-finance reform so that no such ads could besmirch him ever again. Seeing he couldn’t win, Gingrich gave a quick answer and got the hell out of there.

Decorous questioners aside, virtually every candidate event here for the past four days has come complete with two bands of activists, brandishing their signs, standing just outside the hall. The two groups are Ron Paul devotees and Occupy Wall Street protesters. On the sidewalks, they routinely outnumber the advocates of the candidates speaking inside. Occasionally an OWS activist slips inside and pops the candidates a question.

The two groups are also the only ones in the state who exude an evident passion for their cause. Given the glut of media here, the buzz is all politics, but the candidates themselves haven’t set the state aflame. Romney inspires strong emotions only among his detractors; mainstream Republicans inclined to back Romney and Huntsman are appalled at the implausibility of their rivals; and even Paul’s true believers are much more into the cause than they are into their candidate, who comes off on the stump as a sometimes-affable, sometimes-querulous old man. More Republicans have been coming around to Huntsman in the past couple of days (he had a good debate on Sunday), and he does engender a good feeling among his supporters, even though his stump speech is a succession of pulled punches and set-ups for zingers that he never manages to deliver. I won’t be stunned if Huntsman gives Paul a run for his money for the second-place finish tonight.

Confronted with their presidential field, and Huntsman aside, New Hampshire Republicans are suffused with bad feelings—a bad augury for Republican prospects come November.

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