Monday, December 12, 2011

Newt Beginnings

When I heard Newt Gingrich speak at a fundraiser for Maryland’s GOP last summer, I was impressed. I'd heard Gingrich speak before - I worked on Capitol Hill when he was House Speaker - but never in as compelling a manner as when making the intellectual case for replacing President Obama.

The man really has a winning message, I thought. Too bad he’s the wrong messenger.

Now, this wrong messenger is the moment’s man to beat for the GOP presidential nomination.  

Polls show Gingrich leading the GOP field by a wide margin in critical states such as Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida. Recent national polling by Rasmussen shows him leading Mitt Romney by more than 20 points among Republicans, and running evenly against President Obama.

Gingrich’s improbable rise stems from several factors: indifference toward Romney, Herman Cain’s implosion, anemic alternatives, and a series of strong debate performances.

But does Newt actually have a shot of beating Obama?

Retiring Rep. Barney Frank called Gingrich’s rise, “the best thing to happen to Democrats since Barry Goldwater." But historical comparisons, though compelling, don’t always fit.

LBJ was unbeatable in 1964. And, for a time, the Carter campaign regarded Ronald Reagan as its preferred opponent in 1980. That’s not to say Newt is necessarily Reaganesque. Rather it means that a bad economy can diminish incumbents and elevate challengers in unimagined ways.

The best way to assess Gingrich’s viability is to inventory his well-publicized political baggage and the likely impact it will have.

First, in 1997 the House Ethics Committee ruled that Gingrich exhibited an "intentional or . . . reckless" disregard for House rules by using tax-exempt funds for political purposes. Gingrich was reprimanded by his colleagues and fined, though a subsequent IRS investigation found no tax laws were broken.

Clearly the Democrats would aggressively revisit this matter during the campaign, and Gingrich would have to account for it. Still, it is unlikely that reminders of a 15-year-old incident involving the complicated nexus of party politics, arcane ethics rules, and campaign finance will be enough to fell Gingrich.

Second, Gingrich has been married three times. He carried on an affair with his current wife, a House staffer 23 years his junior, while married and leading the effort to impeach President Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair.  He has since converted to Catholicism and expressed regret for his indiscretions.

Bill Clinton likely shattered the peccadilloes barrier for presidential candidates who handle such disclosures adroitly. Gingrich’s colorful romantic history, while likely to cost him some support especially among independent women, is not the deal-breaker it historically would have been absent more embarrassing revelations.

Third, Gingrich presides over a lucrative empire of business interests spanning a number of communications and advocacy activities. His $1.6 million consulting relationship with Freddie Mac and other clients have caused some to label him a wealthy Washington insider profiting from his service in government.

Still, Gingrich’s campaign should be able to paint Democratic attacks on his business dealings as an attempt to divert attention from Obama’s poor economic record.  

For me, Gingrich’s biggest liability is not his past, but his brand.

Gingrich has historically been viewed as a bomb-thrower, not a statesman. He is a deep thinker and an erratic manager, the man who balanced the budget and shut down the government.    

Brand-wise, Gingrich’s problem is that he is Patton, not Eisenhower.

General George Patton was indispensable in combat but miscast in his post-war role as a military governor.  Eisenhower probably could not have liberated Europe without Patton, yet the volatile Patton could have never commanded D-Day – or been elected president.

Likewise, Republicans may never have won back the House in 1994 without Gingrich’s tactical brilliance. But less than three years after capturing Congress, Gingrich was almost deposed in a coup by his GOP colleagues.

Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), who served with Gingrich in the House, described him as “a guy of 1,000 ideas and the attention span of a one-year-old.” Some of Gingrich’s other former House colleagues, as Peggy Noonan recently wrote, had equally underwhelming things to say about him.

The fact that only six House members endorsed Gingrich for president – compared to 44 for Romney – before Gingrich’s recent surge in the polls speaks to his perceived weaknesses as a manager, as does the mass resignations his campaign experienced this summer.

Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton both exhibited an impressive capacity to rebrand themselves during their careers by revealing different aspects of their complex personalities. The fate of Gingrich’s own political comeback hinges upon his ability to demonstrate similar political deftness and heretofore undemonstrated substance.  

Gingrich is intelligent, thoughtful, and tough. He led his party to a major political victory. Whether he can demonstrate the executive temperament the presidency requires remains an unanswered question.

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