Mitt Romney has been on a furious media bender, assailing Newt Gingrich as “zany” and an “unreliable conservative.” Newt’s reply? A soft-focus ad with a waving American flag in which he disdains attacks and proposes solutions.
The general rule in politics is that unilateral disarmament in the face of attacks doesn’t work. But what Gingrich is doing here is a little different. He’s using his response as an unstated rejoinder. You call me unreliable? Here I am in 1994 promoting the Contract With America. You say I’m zany? Here I am talking in a very calm voice.
Gingrich may not have enough money to really make this strategy work, but it seems like a shrewd message. The downside is that he is foreswearing the ability to attack a wildly vulnerable foe. If I told you a few months ago that the main fight leading up to the Iowa caucuses involved one leading Republican attacking the other for being ideologically unreliable, you’d have been certain that the victim was Mitt Romney, right?
Instead, incredibly, we’re having a big argument about reliability and Gingrich, not Romney, is the one on trial. And Gingrich certainly has his vulnerabilities there, but for him to be assailed by Romney on this measure almost defies belief. But his calculation may be that Iowans, by this point, know enough about Romney’s deviations — and are, in fact, itching to vote against him if presented with even a halfway-plausible alternative. If that’s the case, then the question all boils down to whether Gingrich is halfway-plausible, and acceding to make the campaign about himself makes perfect sense.