Gingrich and the Fear Factor

Gingrich's alleged "baggage" and doubts about his electability don't fully explain why, despite his high standing in the polls, the GOP establishment has been shunning the former Speaker of the House, when not showing outright hostility toward him.

The current Speaker of the House, John Boehner, must be considered a prominent opponent, behind the scenes so far.  Boehner, it will be recalled, led the rebellion to remove Gingrich from his post as Speaker back in 1998, joined in this eventually successful effort by Bill Paxon, Dick Armey, and Tom DeLay (all now out of office).  The day after being re-elected to an 11th term by his Georgia constituents, Gingrich announced that he would stand down as Speaker and resign his seat.  As reported in the November 8, 1998 New York Times, he minced no words during a phone conference with colleagues Joe Barton of Texas, Rob Portman of Ohio, Fred Upton of Michigan and RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson, stating "I'm willing to lead but I'm not willing to preside over people who are cannibals." Ouch!

As a historian capable of taking the long view in politics and elsewhere, Gingrich knows full well what it means to be deposed. Luckily, in a democracy such things result only in loss of power. Charles I, Louis XVI, and Tsar Nicholas II, to cite some famous historical examples, lost a lot more than that.  A deposed leader left alive can still be targeted if seen as a threat, as Trotsky found out.  Napoleon was luckier; after Waterloo he only got relocated to St. Helena.  An ousted leader who returns to power is likely to be unkind to those who kicked him out, possibly looking to return the favor, even in a democracy. 

Boehner is hardly alone in fearing a Gingrich presidency.  A true insider, Gingrich knows who among his fellow politicians (from his day and since) stands for what -- the real deal not the sort of palaver politicians offer up when they are on their best behavior on TV for the sake of keeping up appearances knowing that it's on the record and that constituents are watching.  I mean argument (often heated) and behavior (not always polite) behind closed doors where no one can see or hear what transpired except those in the room.  In short, Gingrich knows who the jerks are.  And they know that he knows.  This makes him dangerous.  Anybody who knows where the bodies are buried is a threat to whoever was involved in the burials, no matter how long ago or by whose fault.

If Gingrich gets the nod at the GOP convention next summer, it's a good question how hard he will work to get Republicans elected in the fall.  His former nemesis John Boehner certainly wants to come back as Speaker and preside over an even larger majority in the House.  Will Gingrich want Boehner to stay on as Speaker?  It will depend on how loyal to him as President Gingrich believes Boehner and the GOP House contingent will be.  So, the lot of them will have to come over and convince him that they deserve support.  Gingrich and Boehner will have to mend fences somehow, not a simple thing in light of past bad blood.  Otherwise, Gingrich will do the numbers, figure out how many seats he needs to keep the House and win the Senate, and the rest ... good luck.  The "cannibals," if any, will certainly be on the endangered list.  It is not a comfortable position to be in if you're a Republican running for office next year with Gingrich as GOP standard bearer, knowing you will have to deal with somebody who is nobody's fool, is not just another party hack, goes for the jugular, and can make deals with the opposition if necessary to get the job done.

There's also the fact that Gingrich is smarter and better educated than just about everyone in Congress, now or for a long time.  Gingrich knows it and has been known to rub it in.  Paul Ryan right now is the only member of Congress who can come close to him in IQ, but not in level of education or responsibility.  I've seen Newt speak on several occasions, including televised debates, and he gets to the point and sees the heart of the matter more quickly than any politician I know.  He defends his views with cogent arguments like a logic professor --  I ought to know having been one myself.  It can be intimidating to get into a debate with someone that smart who is quick on his feet and pulls no punches.  Gingrich won't "need no stinking teleprompter" in future speeches as president.  He also has a wicked sense of humor, knows how to use it effectively and isn't reluctant in the least to cut someone to pieces with a joke or sarcastic remark.  He's done it many times and no doubt will continue to do it.  Who wants to look silly on national television?

Gingrich ran the House as Speaker from 1995 to 1999 and was Minority Whip from 1989 to 1995.  These are credentials that his competitors do not come even close to matching.  The only GOP seniors who outrank him right now are President Bush and Vice-President Cheney.  Neither has made a formal endorsement, probably waiting until the primaries are over.  Bill Clinton said good things about Gingrich as a "kiss of death" bit of reverse psychology, designed to give an already scared GOP establishment one more reason to look elsewhere.  Has the former president forgotten who led impeachment proceedings against him in the House?  I doubt it.  Clinton "endorsed" Gingrich knowing what a formidable opponent he would be against Obama. 

Bottom line: The GOP establishment is scared of Gingrich because there's significant doubt he can be relied upon to toe the party line.  Yes, he's unpredictable, which the press has portrayed negatively in an effort to discredit him, even the conservative press - "loose cannon," "own worst enemy," and all that.  The truth is that he's shown time and again that he is a man of principle and puts national interest above partisan politics. That's what this country needs right now, and badly too.

How well Gingrich handles the "fear factor" problems I've described will determine whether he gets the nod next summer, assuming he makes it through the primaries with enough delegates. Showing graciousness toward fellow debaters was a good start.

Arnold Cusmariu is a sculptor and former philosophy professor. His publications are available at and include "The Structure of an Aesthetic Revolution" (2009). He is working on a book to be titled "Platonism in Sculpture."

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