There's a deep and growing divide in the Republican world between those who are able to reconcile themselves with -- to wrap their heads around -- the possibility of Newt Gingrich becoming the GOP presidential nominee, and those who are not. It's becoming increasingly clear that it is Washington insiders who are having the most trouble imagining a Gingrich nomination, while Republicans outside Washington aren't having a problem.
Of course it's the Washington insiders who have the most actual experience dealing with Gingrich. Just look at what Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, who served with Gingrich in the House in the 1990s, said about the former speaker on Fox News Sunday. "I'm not inclined to be a supporter of Newt Gingrich's having served under him for four years and experienced personally his leadership," Coburn said. "I found it lacking often times."
"There are all types of leaders," Coburn continued. "Leaders that instill confidence, leaders that are somewhat abrupt and brisk, leaders that have one standard for the people they are leading and a different standard for themselves. I just found his leadership lacking and…I will have difficulty supporting him as president of the United States."
Gingrich has also taken flak from another former colleague, Rep. Peter King. "The problem was, over a period of time, he couldn't stay focused," King said of Gingrich a few days ago. "He was undisciplined. Too often, he made it about himself."
It's more than just former colleagues. If one were to survey politicos, journalists and others who lived through Gingrich's years as speaker in Washington, there would likely be a near-consensus that Gingrich will blow up his candidacy through some mixture of arrogance and indiscipline. Those insiders simply don't believe there is a New Newt. Old Newt, the Gingrich who alienated many of his colleagues back in the 90s, will reassert himself soon enough, they believe.
Those opinions are colored by personal experience with Gingrich during his years as speaker. That's not the case for most voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and the rest of the primary and caucus states. While insiders remember Gingrich's low points from the 90s, outsiders remember his triumphs. They remember a Gingrich who had the vision to imagine a Republican takeover of the House when no one else could, and the skill to make it happen. And when outsiders think of the two greatest policy achievements of the Clinton years -- a balanced budget and welfare reform -- they know Gingrich can legitimately claim a lot of credit for both. So what if he was abrupt with colleagues? Or, for that matter, if he was the target of a Democratic-driven ethics attack? As far as the 1990s are concerned, outsiders remember Gingrich's high points.
When outsiders talk about the Old Newt, they're mostly talking about his personal life -- the man who had affairs and is now on his third marriage. "I was all for Newt during the Gingrich revolution, but when he had his affairs, I swore I would never vote again for him for dogcatcher," said South Carolinian Gene Bustard after a Gingrich town hall last week in Greenville. "But as much as I try not to like him, I love what he says."
Lots of voters would say the same thing. They have no memories of personal slights or insider gossip about the Gingrich of 15 years ago. For them, there really is a New Newt -- unless Gingrich himself proves otherwise.