Whether Newt Gingrich can pull off a Florida encore to his South Carolina surprise pivots on one question: How did he win South Carolina in the first place?
The Washington Post reported: "Gingrich's strongest support came from those who said the debates had been 'the most important factor' in making their choice."
Gingrich himself said: "It's not that I am a great debater; it is that I articulate the deepest-felt values of the American people."
Let's pick up the story 25 years ago, when Gingrich became head of GOPAC, an organization founded by Delaware Gov. Pete du Pont to recruit and fund Republican candidates.
Gingrich added a new dimension. Instead of only recruiting and funding candidates, he turned GOPAC into a training organization. At the center of the training were instructional tapes designed to teach Republican office seekers how to talk about themselves and their opponents. The distilled teaching was circulated to candidates in the now-famous GOPAC memo with the sunshiny title "Language: A Key Mechanism of Control."
The memo instructed Republicans to describe themselves with words such as pro-flag, freedom, peace, principle and truth and describe their opponents with words such as anti-flag, anti-family, bizarre, radical, sick, corrupt and traitors.
These words are designed to draw sharp lines between the sainted "us" and the villainous "them." They conjure the image of enemy elites who look down on us, hate what we love, and corrupt our way of life.
Early last year, the Library of Congress announced that the GOPAC instructional tapes had been added to the National Recording Registry — a collection of sound recordings judged a "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" part of American life. (Another item added last year was an early recording of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game.") The Library of Congress said the GOPAC tapes were "extremely influential in shaping political discourse from the 1980s to the present."
Gingrich's two big debate confrontations came right out of the GOPAC playbook. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Newt went after black moderator Juan Williams after he posed a question related to black Americans. Gingrich fired back: "More people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history." He said, "Only the elites despise earning money." He made a sneering use of the phrase "politically correct." And he closed by saying, "Every American of every background has been endowed by their creator with the right to pursue happiness. And if that makes liberals unhappy..."
People rose to their feet cheering.
In the debate three days later, Gingrich attacked the media in the person of CNN moderator John King for mentioning the interview given by Newt's ex-wife. In that barrage, Gingrich used the words destructive, vicious, negative, appalled, despicable and trash before closing with this line: "I am tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans."
Those were the two dramatic debate moments that led Gingrich's South Carolina comeback. This is as magical as it gets for Gingrich; no setting is better-suited to his strengths.
But after Newt has trained people in these techniques, perfected them and seen them made public, it's a wonder they still work.
It's as if Newt the magician tells us how the trick works and then does the trick and leaves us asking, "How did he do that?"
Of course, as often happens when people have a very effective, distinctive skill, Gingrich overuses it. Dividing people is not helpful in every context, and Newt has not shown he knows when to stop. As speaker of the House, he led the Republicans to a disastrous budget showdown with President Bill Clinton, trumpeted Clinton's Lewinsky problem in the 1998 campaign, which led to a dismal Republican performance, and then resigned from the House when challenged for speaker, declaring, "I'm not willing to preside over people who are cannibals."
Gingrich is on the rise now, but Newt is a human morality tale, and his tactics are destined to take him down. It's just a question of how soon — and whom he takes with him. Meanwhile, if a candidate in this campaign discovers the antidote to Newt's GOPAC tricks, it, too, should be added to the Library of Congress. It would be even worthier of preserving.
Tom Rosshirt was a national security speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and a foreign affairs spokesman for Vice President Al Gore. Email him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Rosshirt and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.