It's not hard to understand why so many conservatives spurn Mitt Romney. He's had to slink away from past liberal positions on one major issue after another: health care reform, abortion, gun control and climate change. Many on the right are not reassured. They want a true conservative who's been with them all along.
That's not surprising. What's surprising is that they have turned, in their hour of need, to Newt Gingrich. The onetime House Speaker is a consistent conservative like I'm a duckbill platypus. In a contest with Romney for most zigzags, Gingrich can more than hold his own.
The biggest complaint about Mitt is that he pushed a health insurance plan with an oppressive, Obama-like individual mandate. But in 1993, Gingrich announced, "I am for people, individuals—exactly like automobile insurance—individuals having health insurance and being required to have health insurance." He reiterated that position as recently as 2008.
In 2007, he praised a cap-and-trade system to limit carbon emissions as "something I would strongly support." In 2008, he joined with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in calling for "action to address climate change."
Conservatives now regret President George W. Bush's successful push for Medicare coverage of prescription drugs—a huge new entitlement that the comptroller general of the United States said "is probably the most fiscally irresponsible piece of legislation since the 1960s."
Not only did Gingrich endorse it, but Time reported, "GOP leaders brought in Gingrich for a private session to help win over conservative congressmen opposed to the measure's high cost." At the time, of course, he was being paid by pharmaceutical companies.
His most shameless switch came this year after a rebellion erupted against Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. When President Barack Obama was staying out, Gingrich urged him to use U.S. air power to establish a no-fly zone. But when Obama did so, Newt changed his mind.
He embraces and abandons positions as easily as wives. Voting for Gingrich because Romney is a flip-flopper is like moving to Alaska to escape the cold.
No doubt many Republicans feel shortchanged that conservatives like Rick Perry and Herman Cain have done so much to destroy themselves, while Rick Santorum seems incapable of generating enthusiasm. But that's no reason to fool themselves about Gingrich.
He sounds conservative—or "conservative"—mainly because of his scorching attacks on liberals and other foes. He says Obama wants to bring about "the end of America." He denounces the "gay and secular fascism in this country."
He opposed a Muslim community center near Ground Zero as part of "an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization."
Demonizing adversaries is what he does best. Some on the right don't want a conservative so much as they want a hater. Gingrich is their dream come true. Romney shows no flair for irresponsible hysteria and crude smears—and many count that as a serious flaw.
Gingrich, however, has a past that could alienate many religious conservatives. They may resist electing a known repeat adulterer to the presidency—not to mention installing his former mistress as first lady. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention has said, "His toughest audience is going to be evangelical women." Romney, of course, is about as scandalous as Disney World.
Conservatives also have to keep in mind that most voters are not conservatives. Even if Gingrich can win over most Republicans, he is bound to repel everyone else.
In a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, only 36 percent of independent voters regard Gingrich positively, with 43 percent holding a negative view. Their assessment of Romney is far sunnier—45 percent favorable and only 30 percent unfavorable.
Gingrich's high negatives come even before Democratic attack ads begin reminding people of his many shortcomings—including his confirmed ethical lapses as House Speaker and his lucrative Washington influence-peddling. They also come before Gingrich has had months to remind everyone just how volatile and unlikable he can be.
At some point, voters have to ask themselves whom they would be more inclined to trust with the nuclear button. At that moment, the Gingrich bubble is likely to burst.
Many conservatives are reluctant to support a flip-flopper like Romney merely because he looks like he can win the November election. They might weigh that against supporting a flip-flopper who could easily kick it away.
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