Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was perhaps the most anti-Obama of the Republican 2012 candidates in his rhetoric, blasting the president as a “Saul Alinsky liberal,” and “the best food stamp president in American history.”
It didn’t work. Gingrich, who will officially announce next week he is leaving the race, won only two primaries, not only being defeated by Mitt Romney but also finishing well behind ex-Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.
Gingrich no doubt lost because he struggled to raise money, stay on message, organize staff in key states or explain away his controversial record, from his divorces to his resignation from the speakership.
But his defeat also illustrated the limits of the strident, anti-Obama tone that many Republicans, most notably Tea Party activists, adopted in 2009. Unlike Romney, who argues the president is a good man who is simply ineffective in his job, Gingrich constantly went much further, casting Obama as opposed to religious freedom, unable to perform in a debate without a teleprompter and seeking to impose socialism on America.
Obama draws his policy vision from “Saul Alinksy, radical left-wingers and people who don’t like the classical America,” Gingrich memorably declared in January.
Gingrich’s fiery rhetoric appealed to Tea Party voters in some states, particularly South Carolina, where he notched a surprising win. And Santorum won 11 states with some of that same populist anger.
But ultimately, Republican voters opted against this approach. Romney won in spite of a series of moderate stands on issues in his past, most notably support for a health care mandate in Massachusetts only five years ago. Romney carefully stayed away from the anger of the Tea Party, rarely attacking Obama on anything other than policy issues.
The defeat of Gingrich and Santorum is perhaps the most obvious sign of the limits of the Tea Party. The movement did help galvanize Republicans against President Obama and win back the House for the GOP in 2010. And Romney has adopted many of its policy views, as he would look to drastically reduce spending and taxes if elected, as Tea Party activists have demanded.
At the same time, Romney is trying to move to the political center on issues like immigration reform, aware the views of conservative activists are often not reflective of the broader electorate.
Gingrich’s attempts to win the Tea Party vote may have a lasting negative impact on his political career. In 2009, he toured the country to tout education reform with the Rev. Al Sharpton, as both men were trying to establish their ability to look past partisanship on a key issue.
Now, Sharpton would now likely avoid appearing with Gingrich, who angered many in the black community, who said his food stamp remarks had a racial undertone.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr