In the early summer of 2007, an over-the-hill John McCain, his campaign in shambles, was given up for dead in his race for the Republican presidential nomination. He wouldn't give up, though, and by sheer force of will managed to grab his party's spot on the ticket -- and lead it to a crushing defeat.
In the early summer of 2011, an over-the-hill Newt Gingrich, his campaign in shambles, was given up for dead in his race for the Republican presidential nomination. He wouldn't give up, though, and by sheer force of will has managed to talk himself back into contention for his party's spot on the ticket. But do Republican voters really want to be led to another crushing defeat?
That, alas, is almost sure to happen if Gingrich is the Republican standard bearer. Like McCain, he's quite old by any non-Reagan presidential standards (indeed, if inaugurated he would be just four months younger than Reagan was on his Inauguration Day). Like McCain, he has a nasty temper (although, to be fair, it's nowhere near as nasty as McCain's). Like McCain, he has a sordid history with, uh, relationships, although his is more well known than McCain's and does not enjoy the excuse of a "pass" to re-sow wild oats due to brutal years in captivity.
Like McCain, Gingrich seems to erupt most viscerally when he is criticizing conservatives. There's a special edge to his occasional anti-conservative rumblings, as if his inner Rockefeller keeps yearning to be free. (Gingrich was Rocky's southern regional director against Nixon and Reagan in 1968.) When he endorsed Dede Scozzafava over conservative Doug Hoffman in a special election for Congress in New York, Gingrich wasn't content merely to boost the liberal; instead, he repeatedly and emphatically lectured conservatives, indeed insulted conservatives for being stupid and childish and unrealistically "purist." When he trashed Paul Ryan's budget plan this past spring, he not only played into the left's hands by calling conservatism's centerpiece proposal "radical change" and "right-wing social engineering," but he again lashed out in harsh terms at conservatives who objected to his statements -- and then he tried to deny having said what he actually said and claimed to be speaking in a context that didn't exist.
Conservatives who served in Congress with him were familiar with this habit: If he disagreed with moderates, he cajoled them and tried to mollify them; but when he disagreed with conservatives, he went ballistic. Now-Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma tells the story in his book Breach of Trust (2003) about how Gingrich wanted conservatives to renege on a unified party pledge to cut internal committee spending by a third. (If they couldn't discipline their own internal spending, how could they ask for discipline from anybody else?) When a bloc of conservatives nevertheless torpedoed Gingrich's plans (in other words, held to their pledge despite his pressure), the Speaker went ape. He called a "mandatory" meeting for all GOP congressmen, even threatening to send the sergeant-at-arms to track members down. Once there, he blasted the bloc, demanding that "you conservatives" (note the phraseology) shape up. "Gingrich's tactic backfired," wrote Coburn. "He thought he could embarrass and intimidate us, but not one person was intimidated." And: "Gingrich's vitriolic response to us bringing down the rule for the bill confirmed to us that he was willing to trade our principles for a short term political advantage over the Democrats."
Humorously, Coburn noted that Gingrich kept repeating that his motto was "listen, learn, help, and lead," but that the freshman class of Republicans elected in 1994 soon joked that the Speaker's actual behavior was more like "fire, ready, aim."
He did that as Speaker, in spades. He said he wouldn't politicize the Lewinsky investigation, but later he said he wouldn't make a single speech without bringing up Lewinsky, then insisted on releasing the entire Clinton deposition to the public, then insisted on unduly punitive rules for the impeachment inquiry while giving moderates a pass to start a spending binge, and then orchestrated a last-minute ad putting Lewinsky front and center when the public needed no reminder about the already all-encompassing case. Result: Not only did he botch the Lewinsky case by making it look like a partisan witch-hunt, but he also botched the 1998 elections.
He botched the 1995 "government shutdown" battle in similar ways, combining the petty and personal (complaining that Clinton made him sit in the back of Air Force One) with the petty in terms of policy (insisting that the otherwise clean Appropriations fight, which the GOP was winning, suddenly include a technical fix to a tiny Medicare problem, which allowed Clinton to begin his successful Mediscare tactics).
He had a habit of pushing junior members to take a stand one day, only to change his own mind several days later, thus leaving them exposed and alone. He belittled those who didn't agree with him, while exhibiting the self-absorption (to put it nicely) necessary to refer to himself as a "world-historical figure." And, he might have added, world-historical figures are susceptible to having affairs because of "how passionately [they] felt about this country."
Gingrich is the only Republican in the field aside from Mitt Romney who can't make a coherent case against an individual health care mandate, because he supported one himself. He can't make a coherent case against cap and trade, because he supported it himself. He can't make a great case against Nancy Pelosi, because he played political footsie with her on TV. He can't criticize race-baiters at the Justice Department because he has hobnobbed with and even semi-praised the nation's single most prominent and deadly race-baiter, Al Sharpton.
Sure, Gingrich has sounded good in debates, while playing the role of everybody's favorite uncle. What's remarkable is that four months of acting avuncular can make a public with a short attention span forget 35 years of alternating as attack-mongoose and rabid porcupine.
Sure, the man is smart. Sure, he knows his stuff. Sure, he is a practiced speaker. And sure, he deserves great credit for leading (with lots of superb lieutenants) the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 and its subsequent successes with the budget, welfare, missile defense and -- here's something he rarely gets credit for -- the re-invigoration of Washington, D.C. from an almost Detroit-like hopelessness to a workable, and in some cases shining, nation's capital. Despite this column, a listing of his achievements would more than match a listing of his flaws.
Yet those flaws are so numerous, so publicly accessible, so well documented, that conservatives have every reason to recoil in despair at the prospect of him in the Oval Office and anti-Obamites have every reason to fear that a Gingrich-led ticket next year would suffer a massive defeat.
All of which is why, from an entirely neutral standpoint, the rehabilitation of Gingrich's polling numbers in the past few months has been such an astonishing thing to witness. Could Newt Gingrich, despite his faults, make a good, effective president? Maybe. As a risk-reward proposition, though, hitching one's presidential hopes to this Newt is more like riding a crocodile.