Mr. Positivity

Newt Gingrich complains that big money and negative ads are crushing him in Iowa. He has a point.

Newt Gingrich on the campaign trail in Atlantic, Iowa

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

ATLANTIC, Iowa – Newt Gingrich invents analogies almost as often as he writes books. On this leg of his Jobs and Growth bus tour, he was comparing Barack Obama’s economic policies to an avian breakfast treat.

“It’s as though we’ve tried to make hard boiled eggs by putting them in the freezer,” he told a packed, eager room at Tish’s Restaurant, a classy joint in Council Bluffs. (Try the fried cauliflower.) “Now, you can get a hard egg by putting it in the freezer long enough, but it’s not what you want. I think Obama is in relation to jobs as putting an egg in the freezer is to getting a hard-boiled egg.”

It’s a nice analogy. But you could just as easily apply it to Newt 2012, and the weirdly positive campaign he’s now running. One month ago, the candidate cited the polls showing him up in Iowa, up everywhere except New Hampshire, and told ABC News he was “going to be the nominee.”

“I don’t object if people want to attack me,” he told Jake Tapper. “That’s their right.”

Now he’s trailing, in Iowa and nationally. We know why. He’s been bludgeoned by negative TV ads and negative mail. According to the obscure-until-yesterday Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, 45 percent of all TV ads in Iowa have been anti-Gingrich.

Nobody doubts this figure, least of all Gingrich. On Friday and Saturday, stumping in central and western Iowa, he spoke often about the negative campaign against him. Here in Atlantic, he used the “45 percent” number, telling us he “read it in USA Today.” At other events, he opted to scold Mitt Romney and anyone who would let a “super PAC,” with mysterious and unlimited funds, tear a man down. Gingrich says he will not run attack ads, despite the challenges he’s facing. Let all those other guys make their hard boiled eggs with heat, because he’s going to the freezer.

“I propose a simple test, to determine whether or not something is a negative ad,” he said in Council Bluffs. “Candidates ought to make grandchildren watch the ads they’re running. If they’re not proud of those ads, they shouldn’t run them.”

Whenever Gingrich said this, his crowds—all of them large, if not Romney-huge—cheered as though the candidate had announced some miracle cure for tuberculosis. It was unfair, what was happening to their candidate. It was sleazy.

“I just hate it, and there’s so much of it,” sighed Sarah Hoffman, after Gingrich spoke at a restaurant in Shenandoah, Iowa. “Anytime they do anything negative, I just turn it off.”

“I think there ought to be a review panel, or something like that,” said Kelly King, waiting for a chance to shake Gingrich’s hand in Council Bluffs. “You shouldn’t be allowed to run these things that are totally negative and wrong.”

There are a couple of problems with these complaints. One: Negative ads are part of any campaign, and rightly so, because candidates don’t dish ugly (and sometimes revealing) information about themselves. Two: Conservatives derided campaign finance reform in the 1990s, and cheered the Citizens United decision that paved the way for this year’s ad onslaught. For them to complain about campaign spending and secret money funding attacks just isn’t … consistent.

“Negative ads are the coin of the realm,” mused Wayne Nosbisch, a Hillary Clinton fan-turned-Newt fan in Shenandoah.

“What can you do?” asked David Overholtzer, a CPA and local GOP activist, after taking in Gingrich’s Council Bluffs visit. “It’s free speech.”

There we go: That’s the conservative position. After two decisions by the John Roberts-led Supreme Court, campaign finance law was shot through with holes that allowed corporations to donate unregulated amounts of money and allowed “super PACs” to take unlimited sums and spend them on candidates’ behalves.

Before he was a candidate, Gingrich was largely satisfied by these outcomes. Unions, he said in a 2010 interview, had always been allowed to spend freely. They were whining because corporations were getting their own golden tickets? When groups like American Crossroads GPS spent freely against Democrats, it was mostly Democrats who complained.

Return now to Iowa, where super PACs are responsible for much of the negative stuff Republicans are hearing about their candidates. Ask Republicans if they know who’s paying for the attacks in their mail, and they say it’s mostly from weird PACs. (“The Committee to Make America Red, White and Blue, or whatever,” sighed one voter in Creston.) Turn on a radio or TV, leave it on for an hour, and you will hear the Restore Our Future PAC tell voters that Gingrich and Rick Perry “have a lot of baggage” and proceed to mention all of their sins against conservatism. The PAC, run by Romney allies, has spent at least $3.4 million in Iowa. Super PACs have spent $5.8 million total in the state.

Gingrich, who doesn’t have this money, now decries how it’s being used. At a Friday campaign stop in Des Moines, he repeated an old idea to allow infinite contributions to campaigns, but with immediate and full disclosure about who’s donating to whom—not what’s required post-Citizens United. The man who once provided Republicans with lists of extra-negative words with which to humiliate soft liberals (“pathetic,” “radical,” “unionized bureaucracy”—classics) has responded to the supers with a call for the high road

“There’s a chance that Iowa can send a very interesting signal to the country,” Gingrich said in Atlantic. “It will be interesting to see whether, in fact, the people of Iowa decide that they don’t like the people who run negative ads, because you could send a tremendous signal to the country that the era of nasty and negative 30-second campaigns is over.”

This isn’t a strategy. It’s the first of Kubler-Ross’ stages. It’s also odd to hear Newt Gingrich, whose last year in power ended with the impeachment of a president, making the argument. But it’s a good argument. People claim that they want an election about “issues,” and then the negative attacks come out and they do what the ads tell them to. Mitt Romney is running around the state giving 12-minute speeches that largely consist of patriotic songs and stories about the Olympics. Gingrich is giving probably-too-specific speeches about the ways he’d tinker with the Cabinet and abolish unpatriotic courts. The cash-and-cornpone guy is crushing the “ideas” guy.

Toward the end of his Atlantic speech, Gingrich suggested a negative ad that wouldn’t be offensive. “If somebody wants to run an ad that says ‘Gingrich reformed welfare, and that was the wrong thing to do,’ that would be all right,” he said. The actual negative ads are all about Gingrich’s consulting work for Freddie Mac, and his dark flirtations with environmentalism. One supporter, Eleanor Becker, took the microphone in Atlantic to explain the problem.

“You were doing so well in the polls here,” she said, “and then the negative ads came out. My husband and I have supported you since you were in Congress. But the negative ads make you think.”

He gave her an answer she liked, mostly about how the ads were wrong, but he admitted that he should have done more to explain his Freddie Mac consulting. “I think we mishandled it,” he said, “because we should have understood after the very first debate how big a challenge it was, and that it would not go away.”

After the speech, Gingrich told reporters that he would make more “contrasts” with the candidates attacking him. The egg might have to be boiled after all. This was just what Becker wanted.

“I think he should set himself straight and answer the questions,” she said. “He needs to come back with his answers to those ads.” She swung her fist, as if throwing a punch at the person who attacked Newt. But this is the age of the super PAC. Who’s he supposed to hit?