NEW YORK -- Should Newt Gingrich emerge as his party's nominee for president, it will effectively be the second time Democrats have campaigned against him in a presidential race.
The former House Speaker has never formally run for the White House before. But for the group of political operatives involved in the 1996 presidential race between President Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, Gingrich was, perhaps, the most divisive and defining character of that cycle.
"I can't speak for everybody else, but every time I hear his bombast it is a joyful noise unto the world because voters came to know him 20 years ago and they hated him," a former Clinton adviser told The Huffington Post in an interview several weeks ago. "Because in 1996, Clinton was reelected not by beating Bob Dole but by beating Dole and Gingrich."
Looking back on the canon of footage of Clinton campaign ads from 1996, one does get the sense that the campaign took particular glee in dragging Gingrich into the fray. Spots on abortion, gun control, and college education all managed to mention the then-Speaker's name. "Imagine what Newt Gingrich will go after" under a Dole presidency, one spot asked. Upon reflection, even Dole aides admit that it created an uncomfortable and tricky burden.
"[T]he Clinton ads spot-welding Newt to Dole were incredibly effective," said Douglas MacKinnon, a close Dole aide. "Newt's issues have issues."
Gingrich was, of course, at a different point in the arc of his political career then. Having led Republicans to a massive victory in the 1994 midterm elections, he subsequently fought the Clinton administration on items weighty and minor. By March 1996, the public's opinion of Gingrich had soured, with just 24 percent of poll respondents telling CNN/USA Today/Gallup that they had a favorable opinion of him and 58 percent saying their opinion was unfavorable.
"He was a self-immolating political figure and his politics of annihilation eventually extended to himself," said longtime Clinton hand Sid Blumenthal. "And in 1996, the early Clinton ads went like this: they would include a statement from Clinton about what he was doing and be positive, then a picture of Dole with Gingrich. Dole hated Gingrich and he used to tell Clinton, 'I don't want to talk to him, you talk to him.' But politically, because they were the Republican congressional leaders, Gingrich acted as Dole's cement shoes."
The extent to which Gingrich can apply lessons from the 1996 election and to his own run for office seems limited. He was, after all, a part of that campaign in spirit only. And while the propensity for self-destruction may still be there, he is now standing on a firmer foundation. The same CNN/USA Today/Gallup tracking poll showed Gingrich, as of mid-November 2011, enjoying a 36 percent favorable rating and a 39 percent unfavorable rating, with 16 percent of respondents saying they had never heard of him.
How will Trump’s administration impact you? Learn more