WASHINGTON —The first votes of the Republican primary season don’t come until next month, but we already know how it’s going to turn out: Washington has won again.
It may be Mitt Romney or it may be Newt Gingrich, but from the point of view of this town, it doesn’t matter: Neither poses a threat to our way of life. Our hometown industry — a commission-based economy in which the local citizenry helps the powerful get what they want from a too-big government — will survive.
Washington’s win was not always assured. Michele Bachmann would have taken a whack at big government, when she wasn’t converting all D.C. residents to heterosexuality. Rick Perry would have slashed large chunks of the federal government, once he remembered what they were. Pizza man Herman Cain, had he not been undone by his behavior issues, probably would have brought the whole place to a halt.
But neither of the leading contenders represents a danger to Washington’s political culture. As is already well-known, Romney, trained at Harvard and financed lavishly by Wall Street and special interests, is a technocrat and a second-generation politician driven more by personal ambition than any of the various ideologies he has assumed over the years. Conservatives were justifiably searching for an alternative to Willard Milquetoast, but instead they have wound up with the consummate Washington insider -- a man who has made himself a multimillionaire by peddling his influence in the capital.
“I did no lobbying of any kind — period,” Gingrich said last week, explaining why the $1.5 million-plus he earned from lending his influence to mortgage giant Freddie Mac wasn’t technically lobbying. “I’m going to be really direct, OK? I was charging $60,000 a speech. And the number of speeches was going up, not down. Normally, celebrities leave and they gradually sell fewer speeches every year. We were selling more.”
So he wasn’t lobbying — because he was instead trading on his name and influence in Washington to give speeches for $60,000 a pop. That’s well more, for an hour’s work, than the median household income in the United States, which last year was $49,445. Newton Leroy Gingrich, self-described celebrity, poses no threat to Washington’s pay-to-play economy.
My Washington Post colleagues Karen Tumulty and Dan Eggen, in a recent report, quoted a Gingrich lawyer in saying the various tentacles of Newt Inc. have generated close to $100 million in revenues over the last decade. Virtually all of these for-profit activities trade on his name and influence: health care think tank, consulting, speeches, TV appearances, books and more. His nonprofit political entities have brought in another $52 million -- some of which is used to charter jets for Gingrich, who “earned” $2.5 million in personal income last year.
Gingrich’s rise to power two decades ago was financed by a Washington political action committee, GOPAC. Once in the majority, his leadership team championed the K Street Project, designed to make sure top lobbying jobs in Washington went to Republicans. Two years after he won the speakership, the GOP-controlled House reprimanded him for misleading investigators over his use of tax-exempt funds for a college class; Gingrich agreed to pay $300,000 to reimburse taxpayers for the investigation.
The emergence of the Washington-friendly Newt as the last alternative to a Washington-friendly Mitt is but one sign that the tea party’s anti-government insurgency has run its course. A poll released last week by the Pew Research Center found that agreement with the tea party has dropped substantially. In early 2010, 24 percent of Americans said they agreed with the tea party movement and 14 percent disagreed; now, 20 percent agree and 27 percent disagree. In congressional districts represented by tea partyers, agreement once led disagreement by 31-10. Now, it’s 25-23.
Too late, some conservatives have begun to realize that Gingrich offers little in the way of an alternative to Romney. National Review last week dug up a Gingrich quote from 2004 in which he said the conservative Club for Growth was “explicitly wrong” for financing conservative primary challenges to moderate Republicans. And the Washington Examiner editorialized that Gingrich’s past makes “it difficult not to view Gingrich as an exemplar of Washington’s professional Republican politicians who talk the talk to get elected, but often don’t walk it once in office.”
In its pivotal endorsement of Gingrich last week, the conservative Manchester Union Leader editorialized that Gingrich has “the best shot” among the candidates of improving Washington. Here in the capital, we know better: Gingrich won’t change a thing.