Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign -- based on absurd promises, fueled by identity politics and riddled with dishonesty -- accomplished little besides undermining the cause of free enterprise. It was the most damaging assault on American conservativism since the second term of George W. Bush.
Gingrich tried to change the meaning of "free enterprise," "socialist" and "conservative" to justify his own corporate-welfare lobbying and to attack Romney's career as a capitalist. By subverting the language, he weakened the cause of limited government and free enterprise, confusing the conservative base and the news media -- and eroding the theoretical framework on which free-market arguments are made.
Also, by subjugating policy to politics and by shooting from the hip, Gingrich handed Democrats rhetorical ammunition to use against Romney and any Republican who makes a free-market argument.
Gingrich was most destructive between the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries. That's when his super-PAC rolled out a documentary titled "When Mitt Romney Came to Town." It was naked anti-capitalism, attacking Romney for making too much money, dealing with foreign lenders and trying to save companies -- or at least some of their value -- by laying off workers. Had a Democrat made the documentary, it would have been dismissed as a cranky throwback to Ralph Nader-era liberalism. Coming from Gingrich, though, the attack implied something unusually cutthroat about Romney's days in finance. This will be a handy weapon for the Obama campaign to use not only against Romney, but against free enterprise itself.
While he was attacking Romney's capitalism, Gingrich was defending his own corporate-welfare lobbying as "free-enterprise," redefining that phrase to mean "getting rich."
Here's the background: Between his speakership and his presidential run, Gingrich took money from an array of subsidy-suckling businesses, and then tried to cast their political plunder in a conservative light. He took drug-industry money while lobbying for the Medicare drug subsidy. He took ethanol-industry money while supporting ethanol subsidies. And most famously, he inked a contract with the lobbying arm of bailed-out, housing-bubble company Freddie Mac in order to convince everyone that government sponsored enterprises were a wonderful free-market solution.
Lobbyist Gingrich not only advanced big government, but he tried to sell big government to conservatives by conflating pro-business -- which his subsidies certainly were -- with pro-free market. When asked about it during the campaign, Gingrich continued his war on the language of conservatism by asserting his corporate-welfare, revolving-door lobbying was "free enterprise," and that all critics of this racket were showing "a socialist bias that you shouldn't earn money."
From the beginning of his campaign, Gingrich was abusing language for his own political gain. Not wanting to side with Rep. Paul Ryan's controversial but much-needed plan to change Medicare, Gingrich blasted it as "right-wing social engineering." Ryan's plan is no such thing, and attacking it as such only strips the phrase "social engineering" of meaning. It also gives Democrats and defenders of the unsustainable Medicare status-quo even more rhetorical ammo, which they already have used often.
Gingrich's anti-establishment talk was also an effort to render words meaningless.
He was speaker of the House until he resigned from Congress, stayed inside the Beltway, and began working as a lobbyist and consultant for the most entrenched industries while living in McLean. Even so, he said he was running as the "conservative" against "the Beltway establishment." With this line of attack, Gingrich was accelerating the Right's destructive descent into identity politics in which a candidate claims to be an outsider, a conservative, and an anti-establishment warrior, not through his record or policy preferences, but through his rhetoric alone.
Amid all the destruction in Gingrich's wake, some conservatives still defend him. "Over the course of his career, nobody has worked harder to build a Republican majority than Newt Gingrich," one longtime GOP operative told me Tuesday, after Gingrich made it clear he would drop out. "I think that's worth noting."
There's some truth there. Before 1994, Gingrich battled a GOP leadership that was content with being watered-down Democrats and a permanent majority. His Contract With America put a conservative spine in a government accustomed to bowing to every special interest that came around. His record as speaker is mixed, but notably marked by balanced budgets.
Can Gingrich atone for his destructive presidential run in the months ahead? He has signaled he will work hard to help Romney beat Obama, probably by trying to convince the GOP base that Romney is a conservative. As the campaign showed, he is no stranger to word games.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.