Newt Gingrich is a star on political television, a status that was supposed to help his underdog presidential campaign. It's not working out that way.
That's because a new model of video consumption has fundamentally changed the payoff of political TV, as Gingrich learned this Sunday. And the very qualities that make Gingrich a popular pundit also make him a lousy candidate.
Gingrich is still "made for TV"—but in an Internet-driven, parody-refracted 24-hour multi-platform news cycle, Gingrich is the kind of pol who is made only for TV. His pundit pronouncements don't play as well in person (more on that in a moment), or when stacked against their contradictory predecessors by his online detractors, his cable colleagues, or by Fox News' reality overlords at Comedy Central.
The policy scandal currently dominating Gingrich's first week on the trail, which already led Fox News' Charles Krauthammer to declare the end of his former colleague's campaign, started on the set of the most important show in politics, "Meet The Press." Gingrich opposed Paul Ryan's budget as too radical. And he criticized its Medicare substitute as "right-wing social engineering." Conservatives flipped and now Gingrich is backpedaling.
But this is what Gingrich always does—and it's what makes him an "interesting," attention-grabbing pundit. He is a chatty celebrity chef. On Fox, he grills red meat (Obama is the "most radical" president, the "food stamp" president, the "Kenyan, anti-colonial" president), but on mainstream shows, he is quick to cleanse the palate with an even-handed amuse bouche ("I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering"). It's a shtick, and it's been Gingrich's default operation for so long, I doubt he even realizes it.
Now, some analysts were surprised that Gingrich would provoke both his base and GOP leadership in a throwaway line. He probably did not even realize, however, what was going down. After all, pundits are rewarded for challenging their party, and they are rarely held accountable for rank inconsistency. So while nobody really cared that Pundit Gingrich had already said he would vote for Ryan's plan, making him a cynical hypocrite or a waffly mind-changer, Candidate Gingrich is catching hell for saying "sure," he would vote for Ryan's plan. (The one with the social engineering.) And while pundits' track records are largely ignored by the press and public, candidates must actually listen to that huge, invisible audience on the other end of the studio cameras. Which is what makes these 16 seconds some of the most devastating pushback of the 2012 campaign season—and probably the first big citzen advocacy moment of the campaign. This Iowa voter's simple message was recorded, naturally, by pool cameras from Fox News, and is now being amplified across the Internet:
The Iowan, a Republican named Russell Fuhrman, apparently cares about the Ryan budget, and doesn't like GOP infighting. Gingrich looks like he wants out and the handshake hold is the only thing keeping him there. It's the kind of moment that can define a candidate, especially when it goes viral.
The clip was first posted by the Des Moines Register, which reported that Candidate Gingrich was "visibly stunned" by the confrontation, and is lighting up the web. It captures the core of Gingrich's vulnerability—a dated celebrity who is out of touch with his party today—and rests on a policy debate that actually matters (whether to gut Medicare for fiscal savings). The conservative blog Hot Air noted the "merriment with which" people were sharing the video online, suggesting Gingrich "is now officially RINO-in-chief for online conservatives for as long as he’s in the race." Gingrich's hasty YouTube rebuttal is no match for the unscripted chiding he got at the Dubuque Holiday Inn.
In the old days, raising big money and netting an early appearance on shows like "Meet The Press" would mint first tier candidates. Now, the soundbites that emerge from such shows can matter more than the entire appearance. And while TV reporters still give extra attention to candidates made in their image, it is easier to go from politician to pundit than the other way around. Just ask Mike Huckabee. Or Pat Buchanan. Or Sarah Palin. Or, you know, wait a few months and ask Newt Gingrich.