The Republican establishment's high-powered mafia war against Newt Gingrich has sunk to a new low. In recent public statements, disgraced former Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams and thrice-failed GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole have both taken aim at the former House speaker, suggesting that he's "unfit" for the presidency.
Who are these two former GOP hatchet men kidding?
Elliot Abrams, the one-time darling of American neo-conservatives, nearly went to jail in the 1980s for his role in the infamous Iran-contra scandal. In violation of U.S. law, Abrams was caught trying to solicit secret contributions from America's foreign allies to keep the Nicaraguan "contra" war going at a time when Congress had cut off all funding.
Then, caught red-handed, Abrams proceeded to lie to Congress about what he'd actually done.
It took a presidential pardon by George H.W. Bush to keep Abrams from serving a suspended sentence -- including a fine and community service -- negotiated with the U.S. Special Counsel Lawrence Walsh. Abrams went on to serve under George W. Bush in two other assistant secretary of state positions -- including, incredibly, the one in charge of "democracy-promotion" overseas -- but his role in Iran-contra has dogged him ever since.
And this man dares stand in judgment of Gingrich?
Dole, of course, is considered something of a major figure in the GOP, eventually rising to Senate majority leader at the time that Gingrich was House speaker. But Dole's apparently never forgiven Gingrich for overshadowing him politically, and still blames Gingrich's antics for undermining his hapless 1996 bid for the presidency.
Given all the bad blood, it probably didn't take much to get the aging and largely reclusive Dole -- he's currently 87 -- to return to the limelight to bash his old nemesis.
But, like Gingrich, Dole's own political career has long been dogged by allegations of impropriety, both as a Senator, and as a periodic presidential candidate.
In 1993, an FEC audit in 1993 found that Dole's 1988 presidential campaign had accepted illegal corporate contributions, exceeding spending limits in Iowa and New Hampshire, and improperly using a separate political committee he controlled to further his campaign. At the time, the FEC's $100,000 fine was the largest in U.S. campaign history.
And what about Dole's own embarrassing runs for the White House? Those actually started in 1976 when he served as Gerald Ford's running mate against Jimmy Carter. Ford replaced Nelson Rockefeller with Dole because the party felt it needed an "attack dog." The scowling, jowly-faced Dole, who spoke in a sarcastic, gravelly-toned manner, soon became a political caricature, and he ended up hurting the GOP ticket.
But in time-honored Republican fashion, Dole's failed 1976 candidacy soon placed him in a strong position to run for president himself -- which he did again and again, to no avail.
Dole failed to gain the nomination in 1980 (against Ronald Reagan, dropping out early) and in 1988 (against George H.W Bush), but he finally broke through in 1996. He struggled for months to rally moderates and conservatives to unify behind him and did poorly against Democrat Bill Clinton, who won re-election in a landslide.
Dole, in fact, is often viewed as an exemplar of the age-old Republican tradition of nominating the party's "heir apparent" rather than choosing a more dynamic and combative standard-bearer. In 1986, Dole faced a real firebrand in right-wing populist Patrick Buchanan, who bested him in the New Hampshire primary, briefly putting a scare into the GOP establishment.
Echoes of the Dole-Buchanan rivalry can be heard in today's contest between Gingrich and Romney. In many ways, Dole's endorsement of Romney is a defense of the same top-down GOP system that once installed Dole as the GOP nominee, despite the fact that much of the party base reviled him at the time.
What does it say that the GOP is trotting out the likes of Abrams and Dole to try to stop Newt? Undoubtedly, Abrams is hankering to become Secretary of State in a new Romney administration, which would complete his "rehabilitation." Like neo-conservatives generally, he's never lacked for servile cunning in the pursuit of Republican interests, to say nothing of his own.
But for the party itself, this is a base, unseemly but largely ineffectual display of political thuggery. By throwing everything and everyone -- including these ghouls -- at Gingrich, the party's protesting too much. Gingrich, the Republican Robespierre, is rallying the party's unruly sans-culottes around the guillotine. And unless they're stopped, the establishment knows that it won't just be Romney's head that rolls.