A Reluctant Embrace of Newton Leroy Gingrich
America's most incendiary political force is not the 99% but the 75%, that large unfading fraction of Republicans who want a candidate more conservative than Mitt Romney to run against Obama. With less than a month to go before the first primary votes are cast in Iowa, Newt Gingrich is emerging as that candidate.
Many of us who have fiercely criticized Gingrich before did so recognizing his talent but wishing he were a more dependable ideologue in the mold of Ronald Reagan, rather than the inconsistent intellectual who lectures us to distraction and often ends up alienating other conservatives. When Gingrich described Paul Ryan's attempt to declaw our Medicare entitlement monster as "right-wing social engineering" all the poor congressman could say was "with friends like these, who needs the left."But then again we had some serious beefs with Reagan too, and wish he had eliminated the Departments of Education and Energy, refused to raise taxes after 1981 with the promise that spending cuts would be commensurate and that he never granted amnesty to illegal immigrants in 1986.Reagan and Gingrich were at least arguably equally effective in their respective national roles, as president and speaker. That we forgive Reagan his lapses while excoriating Gingrich for his is a matter of personality. Not only was Reagan infinitely more affable, he never possessed that infuriating tendency to champion opposing positions with equal passion, ease and coherence. Reagan was the same man in 1964 as Goldwater supporter as he was in 1980 as Carter opponent. Gingrich on the other hand, seems all too often to suffer from multiple political personality disorder. Which Newt do you want? The Newt who sat next to Nancy Pelosi on a love seat like an eager suitor, expressing deep concerns about the perils of global warming? Or the Newt who eviscerated Speaker Pelosi's royalist habit of transporting her extended family on military jets at government expense with the tagline: Air Pelosi?
Newt is nothing if not creative. Of all the politicians in the Republican universe, whether running for president or not, Newt most possesses the gift of producing rhetorical flourishes that can define an era. His creation of the term Contract with America was one of the highlights of Republican governance in the last half century and, his dismissal of Obama's stewardship by calling him the food stamp president are just two examples. How many more of these gems are queued up in Newt's brain waiting to be hurled at Obama during a face to face debate?
Rhetorically and intellectually Gingrich is better equipped than any other candidate to take on the Obama/Axelrod filth factory. Unpredictable to a fault, with a confidence and fearlessness bordering on the reckless, Gingrich has the ability to keep the Obama campaign on the defensive. With a billion dollars to burn, keeping the bad guys guessing is a blessing.
On strategy, Newt has had plenty of career misses; but when he's good he's very good. His strategy for competing in the primary debates has succeeded brilliantly. Originally an afterthought with a low single-digit following, Gingrich has progressed steadily -- now enjoying sizable leads in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida --by casting himself as the gracious elder statesmen and refusing to blast his fellow Republicans while reminding them not to lose focus on the real target, the failed policies of Barack Obama. Indeed, Newt had promised before the last debate to stay "relentlessly positive." His turning the tables on the liberal media debate moderators was a clever touch as well, one that drew enthusiastic audience responses. It was a tactic no one else but Gingrich could have pulled off as successfully, and without a doubt Gingrich has performed with more aplomb and authority than any other candidate in the debate forums.
Gingrich is surprisingly charismatic for a rotund, overly familiar sixty-eight year old. The charisma apparently stems from both his fluent, confident delivery in what seem to be fully edited cadences and the full breath we take before he speaks, never sure what the historian might shockingly utter. He is a controversy magnet and whether speaking about child labor or Palestinian identity, Newt can keep columnists busy all on his own. Gingrich is a one man news cycle.
Newt might also be the most proficient put down artist in the Republican Party, and the only candidate on a debate stage that can really be considered fearsome. It's hard to imagine that Obama could either run away from him or counterpunch effectively in a verbal ring. Newt's capable of unleashing wilting sarcasm on his opponents and of eliciting thunderous applause and standing ovations among conservative true believers.
Many of us who are horrified at times by Gingrich's scattershot conservatism would unhesitatingly cast a vote for him in 2012 with infinitely more hope and enthusiasm than we had when we dragged ourselves to the polls in 2008 to vote for a sure Republican loser. Unlike our last presidential choice who refused to utter Obama's middle name in a bizarre act of submission, Newt would be willing to drag Obama's name in the mud and then step on it. For though Newt's resume might cite him as a scholar and author, he has the tenacious personality of a bruiser. And we will need a street fighter in order to have any real chance of winning.
Claude can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org