01/22/2012 08:57 pm ET Updated Mar 23, 2012

Could Gingrich's SC Win Be a Pyrrhic Victory? Ask Bill Clinton

There is no doubt that Gingrich's win in South Carolina is a significant victory for him.  The anti-Romney forces pulled out all the stops in the Palmetto State, and, if they couldn't stop the Mitt Train here, they wouldn't be able to stop it anywhere.  Nor should it be forgotten that Gingrich's vote percentage in South Carolina is the second lowest for any winning candidate in a contested South Carolina primary since 1980; even Bob Dole got 45 percent of the vote in 1996.  Only John McCain did worse with 33 percent of the vote in 2008.  Still, Gingrich was able to give new life to his campaign, though the way he won may point to electoral red flags in the future.

Cunningly, Gingrich was able to change the narrative in South Carolina by making it about him.  Between "King of Bain"-style attacks on Romney and his explosions of outrage against the media, Gingrich pushed narratives of Romney's momentum to the background.  Eschewing policy, Gingrich ran instead on performance art.  Despite his long history as a Washington insider and many positions on many issues, he made himself the avatar of "conservative" frustration, victimization, and irritation.  In a Republican primary in South Carolina, that's a good tactic. 

If, however, a general election between Gingrich and Obama becomes a referendum on Gingrich, the former Speaker probably loses.  Obama's mixed record is a hard thing to run on; surely, the White House would much rather run against Newt Gingrich as a cultural and political figure.  Gingrich has proven all too glad to make himself the center of a political race, and the Obama administration will likely oblige him.

Almost twenty years ago, another Democratic incumbent realized this dynamic.  Bill Clinton was able to reconfigure the media landscape by letting the 1996 and 1998 elections be about Newt Gingrich.  In both of them, Republicans lost seats in the House (coming within a few seats of losing the House itself in the latter).  Furthermore, by making Gingrich a central figure of the 1996 campaign, Clinton was able to make what might have seemed a troubled reelection bid a sure thing.  There's a reason why few of Gingrich's conservative House colleagues have endorsed him and why many have outright attacked him.

For a while, Gingrich had run on the narrative that this was a "kinder, gentler" Newt, an older and wiser man who had learned from his past personal and rhetorical excesses.  Gingrich's nuclear (and, at times, self-contradictory) barrage against Romney and the media has shattered that narrative.  We're back to Newt 1.0, the battle plans against which were already drafted by the Clinton White House.

If he wants to be viable as a general election presidential candidate, Gingrich is going to need to move beyond red-meat appeals to the conservative id and beyond the politics of personality.  As Conn Carroll at the Washington Examiner has noted, Gingrich's net approval rating with the American public is around minus 30.  He remains an exceedingly polarizing figure to the public at large.  Gingrich has a few months to turn that around.  But that is a steep hill to climb.  In the days ahead, Republicans will have to ask themselves whether that hill is worth the ascent.