Hey, Newt, What Establishment?

Newt Gingrich says it’s out to get him. But …

The Republican Establishment lives at a fixed address in Washington, D.C. It attends the Alfalfa Club dinner each year, lunches at the Cosmos Club, and above all holds fiercely to the notion that it should have the power to decide. Sometime in December, the Establishment deemed Newt Gingrich a threat to its chosen candidate, Mitt Romney, and so it has risen up to strike Newt down.

This is the narrative Gingrich is pushing to account for his faltering campaign, and to make sense of his Florida wipeout. It’s a more flattering explanation than the alternative, which is that many Republicans—including a sizable number who worked with him in Congress—don’t seem to think he would make a good President. It’s an easy story to pen, which is why so many reporters and television talkers have latched onto it. Like most theories that hint at conspiracy, it seems to prove itself: Why else would party elders, including George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, and John McCain, come forward to undermine him?

The hitch is that the Establishment Gingrich invokes exists largely as a memory, and to the extent it still can be called a club, he’s a member of long standing. Gingrich hasn’t articulated just what the powers that be have to fear from him—as Republican outliers go, he’s not exactly Ron Paul. It’s a tribute to Gingrich’s skills as a politician that a former Speaker of the House, adviser to Freddie Mac, and resident of McLean, Va., has fashioned himself as an insurgent. He entered the race brandishing credentials as a man with intimate knowledge of how Washington works, and hastily rebranded only after his campaign failed to find much traction among voters, for whom insiderdom is no virtue.

Gingrich’s claim that he’s a victim of the elite rings true to his supporters in part because many older voters remember when the Establishment really was a powerful force in both parties. As recently as a few decades ago, party elders provided much of the money, the organization, and most important, the validation for a candidate seeking national office. Think Clark Clifford making a magical phone call or Robert Strauss sealing a deal, James A. Baker III navigating both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue or the silky voice of Vernon Jordan settling competing claims. But routes the Establishment once blocked have been unclogged as campaigns become open-source enterprises. With social media now the engine for organizing, raising money, and communicating, the order and predictability the Establishment used to bring has given way to a more chaotic and unpredictable system.

“There really is no Republican Establishment left that can control anything,” says Matthew Dowd, a top campaign strategist for President George W. Bush and a Bloomberg Television contributor. “The voters are now in charge, and Republican leaders need to come to terms with that. The media needs to drop the myth that there is a Republican Establishment capable of orchestrating anything more than a one-float GOP parade.”

When Bob Dole, the embodiment of a party elder, attacked Gingrich in an open letter last month—“Hardly anyone who served with Newt in Congress has endorsed him and that fact speaks for itself”—his broadside barely made a ripple until it hitched a ride on the Drudge Report. Even then, the takedown seemed to register more with political professionals and journalists than with voters, for whom Dole is a distant memory. “Candidates are more entrepreneurial,” says Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist. “They don’t need a machine for access to the public. There are free ways to get famous.”

At the moment, one model of the new Establishment, such as it is, may be located in the checkbook of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, whose twin $5 million contributions (one from his wife) to the super PAC supporting Gingrich’s run has kept the Republican Presidential nomination fight going. Or Foster Friess, the Wyoming billionaire largely bankrolling a super PAC bolstering Rick Santorum’s ambitions.

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling made it possible for one very wealthy individual to commandeer a Presidential race, giving new meaning to single-payer system. Without Adelson, Gingrich would have been left to make his own oxygen. In the final weekend before Floridians voted, he said his campaign account had only $600,000 left in it. Romney is flush with millions, which he effectively used to crush his opponents in Florida. Gingrich takes this as further evidence of his status as a rebel and has vowed to keep going. To do that, he’ll have to convince voters not just that the Establishment is against him, but that it’s wrong.

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