Newt Gingrich loses his cool over "open marriage" accusations

The Republican candidate may have shot himself in the foot with last night's tirade.

At last night's Republican debate in South Carolina, all eyes were on Newt Gingrich as he erupted over claims he wanted an "open marriage" with his second wife and lashed out at what he described as "the destructive, vicious, negative nature" of the media.

CNN's John King opened the debate by asking Gingrich if the allegations made by former wife Marianne were true. The stunned presidential hopeful was prompted by King who asked: ""Would you like to take some time to respond to that?" A red-faced Gingrich replied: "No, but I will," earning cheers and a standing ovation from the audience.

Newt's tirade continued as he blamed the media for making it "harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office" and said he was appalled that CNN began a presidential debate on that topic.

Unsurprisingly Gingrich vehemently denied the claims, stating: "To take an ex-wife and two days before the primary [raise] a significant question in the presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine ... I am frankly astounded that CNN would take trash like that and open the debate."

However, a combative Gingrich wasn't done yet. After King pointed out that it was ABC, not CNN, who aired his ex wife's claims of an "open marriage", Gingrich told him not to blame anybody else and stressed his disgust that the debate was opened with such a personal question. He then blamed the "elite" media for protecting President Obama.

However, despite earning a standing ovation from the South Carolina crowd when he angrily rebuked King, it appears Newt doth protest too much and his outburst may turn out to be a PR disaster, giving greater prominence to the allegations and therefore alienating the evangelical Christians who dominate South Carolina.

Fellow nominee Rick Santorum expressed worry over Gingrich's temper, saying that "these are issues of character to consider" and Ron Paul, who was more of a spectator than a participant in last night's debate, made a blatant attempt to highlight his own personal values, piously expressing his pride over his wife of 54 years.

Frontrunner Mitt Romney, with whom Gingrich is almost neck-and-neck in the polls, earned applause by taking the high road and saying: "Let's get on to the real issues. That's all I've got to say." However, he might have regretted moving off the subject of Newt's escapades so quickly as he was faced with yet more questions about his tax returns. A defensive Romney fumbled through his answer, vaguely promising to release the past year's tax return in April.

Three-times-married Gingrich is well-known for his infidelities, causing many staunch conservatives to question his moral fibre. He famously called for the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton following his Oval Office dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, at the same time that he himself was having an affair.

Gingrich's explosive temper was also an issue when he served as House speaker. He was blamed for two partial government shutdowns during the battle over the budget, which made him seem reckless and hot-headed. A wide-spread editorial cartoon depicted him as having a rather embarrassing temper tantrum.

Despite a storming performance at Monday night's debate, by unleashing such a tirade last night Gingrich may have inadvertently shot himself in the foot.

 

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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.