I’m back in the saddle after my quick out-and-back trip to the Left Coast, which means I spent most of the last two days on airplanes that did not, alas, have live internet up and running yet. During the last 72 hours Newt Gingrich has jumped into the lead in several polls, which made a nice set-up for the opening of my remarks to the O’Donnell, Clark and Crew annual dinner Thursday night (thanks again, ODC folks, for your fine hospitality):
So, my nine-year-old boy is starting to take a more intense interest in football, and he’s showing the good sense to become a Green Bay Packers fan rather than sticking with the forlorn Washington Redskins. He’s full of questions about how the game works. But he’s also full of questions about the commercials, and is already fully versed in the differences between Aflac, Progressive, and Geico insurance, as well as inventing his own verses for the Nationwide jingle.
But then there’s the knotty problem of the inevitable Cialis ads. The conversation went something like this:
Boy: “What’s . . . reptile dysfunction?”
Me: “Uh . . . um . . . it’s when your lizard or snake aren’t feeling right.”
At this point, I’m thinking, “Please don’t ask about the bathtubs, because I’m not sure I can sell the idea that they are newt tanks, and even an extended explanation involving Gussie Fink-Nottle probably won’t work as the boy knows that newts are not reptiles—they’re amphibians.”
But this gets confusing in a hurry, as the most prominent Newt in America these days is a chameleon, which is a . . . reptile. The emergence of Newt as the GOP front runner is about as unlikely as a drum circle at a Tea Party rally.
Okay, you can see where this is going. The chief focus of Newt News over these last 72 hours has been his business dealings, involving $1.6 million in consulting fees from Freddie Mac, and something like $37 million from the health care industry for his Center for Health Transformation. All of this buttresses the case that Newt is a “Washington insider.” And this is indeed a problem for him in the abstract, given that voters almost always prefer outsiders who can plausibly promise to “clean up the mess in Washington.” Even Obama was able to affect this pose to some extent in 2008, though he surely can’t now, which may vitiate the weight of Newt’s DC ways.
But there is one observation to make about Newt’s business dealings: Like everything else about Newt, he conducted his post-congressional career entirely different from everyone else. In other words, he’s the Frank Sinatra of out of office politicians—he did it his way.
Typically senators and congressmen, if they are lawyers and sometimes even when they are not, join big law firms, where they pull down seven-figure salaries not as lobbyists, but as “advisors,” and, let’s be candid, as rainmakers for the firms. Bob Dole joined Alston and Bird; Tom Daschle (whose wife, recall, was a huge lobbyist while he was Senate majority leader) joined DLA Piper. Think any of these ex-congress critters do much actual legal work commensurate with their hefty salaries? Me neither. (Nixon, by contrast, actually argued a case before the Supreme Court in the mid-1960s during his long comeback as a Wall Street lawyer.)
The point is: no one ever sees or hears about, or draws direct connections to, the large retainers law firms are able to charge clients and interest groups for the access and “advice” of the ex-legislator stars they add to their letterhead. Newt didn’t play it that way and join a law firm or a consulting firm; he did it directly and openly by himself.
Voters will have to decide whether Newt’s connections and DC-insider status are a plus or a minus. One thing about Newt, though; he is never defensive—on this or anything else. Unlike so many Republicans who always want to apologize for not seeing eye to eye with the media or the liberal establishment, Newt attacks. This has always been the not-so-secret of his success. Instead of trying to portray himself as an outsider or an insurgent, he’s turning his insider status into a virtue. We’ve tried amateur hour with Obama; he’s said; maybe we ought to try someone who knows how Washington really works.
This is starting to get really interesting.