Can Newt Gingrich Win?

Newt Gingrich

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Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich first made a name for himself back in the late 1980s when he waged a seemingly hopeless campaign to drive Rep. Jim Wright (D-TX) out of Congress.  Mr. Wright was the Speaker of the House at the time.  Mr. Gingrich was an ankle-biting back bencher.  Everyone thought Gingrich was consigning himself to the seventh circle of political hell by attacking the Speaker.But after months and months of Mr. Gingrich’s relentless attacks, Mr. Wright was forced to step down, undone by ethics charges that ended his political career in 1989. 

People noticed. 

Mr. Gingrich followed this coup with the promise that Republicans would soon seize control of the US House of Representatives at the ballot box. Everyone rolled their eyes; Gingrich was obviously a loon.  The chances of anything like that happening seemed beyond sensible consideration.

In 1994, Mr. Gingrich led an electoral Republican revolution, that resulted in the GOP re-capturing both the US Senate and the US House of Representatives (and more gubernatorial seats than you could count). He was, in January of 1995, elected Speaker of the House.  He went on to score a remarkable string of legislative victories, which were capped by the passage of welfare reform in 1996.  Mr. Gingrich then ran into ethics charges of his own, his marriage collapsed (he was having an affair) and his banishment to political exile began. 

He’s now back, as a candidate for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, a converted Catholic, a devoted husband, a better man (he says). All of the reasons his 2012 presidential campaign won’t be successful are here in this piece by Washington Post reporter Dan Balz.  Among those reasons: Mr. Gingrich is yesterday’s news, he’s undisciplined, he’s unfocused, he doesn’t take advice, he doesn’t know how to delegate, his personal past is too messy, etc.  Balz summarizes it fairly. If you follow politics at all, you’ve heard the mantra a hundred times.

Given these “weaknesses,” how can he possibly win?

First, he’s running against a not-daunting field of GOP presidential candidates.  The first rule of presidential politics is this: You don’t have to be Abe Lincoln, you just have to be better than the others.  Each of them has their own “weaknesses.”

Second, he’s smarter than most (if not all) of the other candidates and has devoted considerable thought to policy initiatives across a wide range of critical issues. A key test of presidential viability is whether people can imagine you as president. One way you get people comfortable with the idea is by having a solid grasp of public policy.  America is a big country.  As they say, it has “a lot of issues.”  Mr. Gingrich is knowledgeable.  He’s been living and breathing this stuff for roughly three decades.

Third, he’s a good debater.  If he can discipline himself to not have to be the smartest guy in the room, he can win the debates. 

Fourth, he’s a proven fund-raiser. Money matters. Raising it is hard.  Mr. Gingrich is good at it.

Fifth, he’s selling his candidacy as a story of personal redemption. Voters like that. “Rocky” was a hugely popular movie because it wasn’t about the boxing, it was about redemption.

Sixth, he knows everybody in the party and across the conservative movement.  He’s not beloved.  He’s not even particularly well-liked.  But he’s known. And he’s respected for his intelligence and doggedness.

Seventh, there’s a great narrative tailor-made for his candidacy.  Mr. Gingrich imagines himself as Winston Churchill, tossed aside in England in the 1930s until it was almost too late, then coming back to save England during its darkest days. He should discard that thought.

Mr. Gingrich is not Churchill, he’s Richard Nixon. His argument is Nixon’s argument from the 1968 campaign: you may not like me, you may in fact despise me, but I am the right man for this moment of maximum peril for our country.

Mr. Gingrich can say: “I helped right the country in 1995-1996 and although the challenges are much greater now, I can do it again. I’m the only one in this field who has ever successfully moved the policy needle in a conservative direction in Washington.” That last bit is absolutely true.  The others have never moved the needle in Washington, at all.

With Newt Gingrich, one is always drawn back to the flaws; the preposterous statements about President Obama, the grandiose verbosity, the weird vibrations, the futuristic quackery.  One is likewise taken aback by his seemingly delusional strategy for winning the nomination: he will lose all the early states, the voters will experience buyer’s remorse, Gingrich will be the only capable alternative remaining and the voters will turn to him in the latter contests and make him their champion.  It’s like the manager of the Boston Red Sox saying: “get out there and lose the first 40 games.  Then we’ll win the next 122.”

So Balz is probably right.  When voters think of Newt Gingrich, they will be borne ceaselessly back to his flaws.  The challenge for Mr. Gingrich will be to somehow raise his game to the point that when voters come to consider his candidacy, they’ll think: “I need to re-think what I think about Newt.”  That’s a long hard road with an attention-deficit electorate. But as noted at the top of the piece, Mr. Gingrich has faced very long odds before and emerged, albeit fleetingly, triumphant.