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Sarah Palin's attack on the GOP establishment

January 30, 2012 |  1:09 pm

Newt Gingrich and Michael Reagan
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin stirred the pot again in the GOP presidential campaign, using her Facebook account Friday to blast "the Republican establishment" for using "Alinsky tactics" against her favored candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. I'll leave it to Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic to critique the historical inaccuracies in Palin's rant; he also provides an intriguing but non-scientific sampling of the blowback from Palin's followers in the tea party. I'm more interested in two of Palin's bigger points, one of which is disingenuous, the other right on the money.

Taking the latter first, Palin rightly calls out the media for promoting what is a powerfully pro-Mitt Romney meme, namely, that the former Massachusetts governor can sew up the nomination just by winning (fill in the blank). I'll confess to engaging in some of this kind of punditry myself. It may be a realistic assessment of historical patterns, but it ignores the gyrations in this year's primaries. Those gyrations stem from many voters' deep-seated misgivings about putative front-runner Romney, their lack of familiarity with most of the candidates in the race and the differing priorities held by social conservatives, tea partyers and Main Street Republicans.

The conventional wisdom has been that Romney faced his biggest challenges in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, three of the first four GOP contests. Social conservatives -- Romney's weak suit -- are a dominant voting bloc in Iowa and South Carolina, and they have a lot of clout in Florida. If Romney did well enough in those states to prevent any of his rivals from building up a head of steam, none of them would be able to raise the kind of money needed to overcome Romney's advantages in organization and money. Or so the theory goes.

And that may be true if Romney thumps Gingrich as badly in Florida as he appears poised to do. The relentlessness of the anti-Gingrich advertising by Romney and his backers appears to be taking its toll. But the televised debates in this campaign have played a much larger role than usual, with candidates rising or falling with their performance on stage. Gingrich was en fuego in the debates before the South Carolina primary, but he wasn't nearly as good in the ones since then. If he recovers his mojo, or if former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum continues to sound like a credible leader (most of the time) when he gets his infrequent turns at the microphone, fortunes could change again.

Besides, it's very much in the GOP's interests to have the contest continue. It means more attention to their candidates and more vetting. As the prolonged battle between then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton showed in 2008, it helps a candidate to have his (or her) dirty laundry aired early, rather than having the news media take an interest in it a few weeks before the general election.

As for the disingenous part, it's almost funny to have Palin suggest that Gingrich is somehow above "the politics of personal destruction." But then, she hasn't been in national politics long enough to remember the anti-Clinton rhetoric in the 1990s. If saying someone rewrote history is beyond the pale, what about accusing him of murder?

Palin was particularly peeved by Republican attacks on Gingrich's claim to be a true Reagan revolutionary. But the former president's mantle doesn't fit comfortably on Gingrich, who's never really seen himself as someone else's heir but rather as a historic and transformational figure in his own right. Besides, the best answer Gingrich can offer to the GOP criticisms isn't to silence them but to prove them wrong. That's what Gingrich was trying to do in Florida on Monday, hitting the stump with Reagan's son (and Gingrich backer) Michael Reagan.

The sad reality is that negative campaigns are a staple of democracy. It's how voters distinguish between candidates, especially when they all seem to be calling for the same things. Aside from Rep. Ron Paul's isolationist position on foreign policy and his aggressiveness in cutting federal spending, there aren't many clear differences among the candidates on big policy questions. They all say they're for reversing the course President Obama has set since 2009, lowering taxes, repealing regulations and shrinking the budget deficit.

The question for GOP voters isn't really which candidate's economic plan stands out from the others'. It's which candidate can a) beat Obama, and b) produce actual change in Washington. In trying to answer that two-pronged inquiry, it's entirely valid to scan each candidate's closet for skeletons and measure how well he responds to a challenge. Ronald Reagan's so-called 11th Commandment is a recipe for leaving front-runners in the front, then vetting them in the general election campaign. That doesn't seem like a path to victory -- not when the Democratic nominee is packing a billion-dollar war chest.

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Friends, Romans, voters

Newt's swan song in the key of F, as in Florida?

Would the Romney ad be OK if it featured Ron Burgundy?

-- Jon Healey

Photo: Newt Gingrich hits the campaign trail with wife Callista and Michael Reagan, son of the former president. Credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

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