Will the Tea Get Cold?

Charles Ommanney/Reportage by Getty Images
A Romney supporter outside the Romney for President headquarters in Greenville, South Carolina, January 21, 2012

The Republican presidential nomination contest, which has entered a lull before it presses toward a probable showdown in March and April, when thirty primaries and caucuses will be held, has found its script. It will be a struggle between the “establishment” candidate and one or another “insurgent.” What might seem confusing is how, and on whom, these labels have been affixed. According to the accepted calculus, the establishment candidate is Mitt Romney, although as many have pointed out, he is less a creature of Washington than any of his three remaining rivals.

Romney has held elective office only once, his single term as governor of Massachusetts (2003–2007), and spent most of his professional life, as he tirelessly reiterates, in the “private sector.” The vast fortune he accumulated, including the $45 million in earnings in 2010–2011 that he reported in late January,1 on tax returns he reluctantly disclosed under pressure from his chief rival, Newt Gingrich, came in the field of private equity, “a prime legacy of the Reagan years” that remain a golden age for conservatives, as a Wall Street Journal columnist pointed out,2 but has nonetheless kept him under continual, and surprising, populist attack from the right.

This emerged most forcefully in the South Carolina primary. Gingrich’s victory there catapulted him to his current position as a lead spoiler and self-appointed outsider. Yet he too seems miscast. Though he has insisted that his is “a campaign of people power versus money power,”3 he had reported income of $3.16 million in 2010,4 almost all of it earned via politically related business, the outgrowth of his twenty years in the House of Representatives, a period marked by controversy and during which he was punished for ethics violations. Since leaving the House, Gingrich has feasted at the K Street lobbying trough and perpetuated his long, cozy association with the government-supported mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Announcing a housing partnership in Atlanta in 1995, for example, he held up Fannie Mae as “an excellent example of a former government institution fulfilling its mandate while functioning in the market economy.”

Gingrich’s ties to Freddie Mac were even stronger. The corporation paid him $25,000 a month as a consultant shortly after he too joined the “private sector” in 1999. Today, of course, Gingrich has added his voice to the chorus calling for the dismantling of both companies.5 Meanwhile, as he continues to taunt Romney, who as governor introduced a forerunner of “Obamacare,” with the epithet “Massachusetts moderate,” in tones Republicans once reserved for denouncing “Radic libs” and “left liberals,” Gingrich has had to explain his own complicity in “big-government” schemes, including his support, as recently as 2009, for cap-and-trade legislation.

The other candidates’ résumés are…

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