Republican ephemera, Part 4: Even Newt’s baggage has baggage…

Newt Gingrich has been quite the Republican statesman lately, shrewdly applauding his fellow candidates at every opportunity and attacking debate moderators. And his poll numbers lift him from the presidential obscurity to which he seemed destined a mere month ago to Serious Contender status. (Americans viscerally detest debate moderators.)

A Fox poll of Republican primary voters gives Gingrich 23%, Romney 22%, Cain 15%, and the rest single digits. A CNN/ORC poll of Republicans and independents who lean Republican gives Romney 24% and Gingrich 22%. Quite the surge for the gentleman from Georgia.

Debate-weary Republicans dream of the Great Debate between Gingrich and Obama, and what the savvy Speaker and architect of the ’94 Republican resurgence could do to the guy who was 33 in 1994, and hadn’t yet begun his political career. Meanwhile, Democrats salivate at the prospect of Republicans choosing Newt Gingrich to run against Barack Obama, and their Playbook for such a scenario is thick with optimism.

Gingrich has three categories of baggage — and by “baggage,” we mean stuff that depresses voters, or more particularly, depresses voter enthusiasm and turn-out (or, alternatively, inspires enthusiasm or turn-out for one’s opponent).

1. Gingrich has high name recognition precisely because he was the guy who reintroduced America to divided government. When the Republicans took over the House in 1994 — the first time since 1954 — it was due in no small part to the raging partisan energy of Newt Gingrich, co-architect of the Contract with America, and back-bencher bomb-thrower for years before that success. There followed abundant legislative energy in pursuit of the Contract with America, an unpopular determination to impeach a popular president, and a sad stand-off with President Clinton that could have been a significant victory for fiscal responsibility, but ended up being about Newt Gingrich feeling personally snubbed by the president, and a government shut-down that Democrats successfully painted as Gingrich’s petulance. Gingrich’s name recognition derives substantially from his passionately partisan stature in the 1990s — not a recipe for attracting independents.

2. Fast-forward to the 21st century. Gingrich strives to acquire counter-baggage. Serious counter-baggage, not simply moderation of his views. He flips 180, and flips hand-in-hand with iconic Democrats who were as passionately partisan for the opposite camp as he had been for his. He holds hands with John Kerry about global warming, cuts a global warming commercial with Nancy Pelosi, holds hands with Al Sharpton about education reform, supports a George Soros candidate in a special election, holds hands with Hillary Clinton about health care, and even applauds the individual mandate. And most recently, he calls Paul Ryan’s plan to save Social Security “right-wing social engineering.”

And now he’s trying to sound conservative again. I could make a case that Newt Gingrich is a smart man with views that evolve intelligently with the times — but if the question is who has flip-flopped more, advantage Romney, indeed, advantage all of the Republican candidates over Gingrich. And if the question in the general election is who has been more steadfast to their stated principles, advantage (barely) Obama. Gingrich’s reinvention of himself may be commendable — but it is serious baggage in the Republican primaries, and still baggage in the general election.

3. And then there’s the personal baggage. Should it matter? Probably not. But did it matter to Gingrich when he participated in the assault on President Clinton for his tawdry trysts with Monica Lewinsky and others? Yes it did, even though Gingrich was having an affair with his now third wife at the time. And then there’s the disputed treatment of his former wives, which would ideally be irrelevant, but will not in a general election with minions dispatched to slam the Republican candidate by whatever means possible. Similarly his status as the only Speaker of the House to have been disciplined for ethics violations. I’ve taken a look at those ethics charges — 84 charges, of which 83 were dropped — and the one that stuck, something about failure to seek legal counsel and providing inaccurate information, seemed thin to me — but we’re talking about “baggage.” And in the general election, Gingrich would simply be “the only Speaker of the House to have been disciplined for ethics violations.”

It wouldn’t appear from this essay that I admire Newt Gingrich — but I do. I cannot help but admire a man who ended a 40-year Democratic Party monopoly on Congress, a man who properly shares credit for some of the achievements of the Clinton administration and who deserves credit for preventing some of the mischief Clinton would have done but for divided government.

But that doesn’t mean he should, or could, be president. If Republicans are serious about winning the White House in 2012, then this latest Anybody-But-Romney uptick by Newt Gingrich should promptly go the way of Bachmann, Perry and Cain. Mitt Romney can beat Barack Obama. I don’t see anyone else who can.

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8 Responses to Republican ephemera, Part 4: Even Newt’s baggage has baggage…

  1. lbwoodgate says:

    Yes, Gingrich is a smart man, but an exceedingly vane one too. This is exemplified in his statement to his second wife who asked him how he he could act so morally superior when criticizing the Monica Lewinsky affair with Clinton while he was seeking his second divorce from her. His reply:“It doesn’t matter what I do. People need to hear what I have to say. There’s no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn’t matter what I live.”

    • Agreed my friend.

  2. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    Remarkably, I used to be a Gingrich fan. I believed in his Contract with America. He was and is bright, articulate, and passionate. But the other passionate part of him, the unruly, indiscreet and hypocritical passion rises to the top for me – and for many others. I’ve always known that there’s a segment of the voting population who never cares about the personal lives of our politicians, who don’t believe it matters. But, thankfully, it matters to many, many of us how people live their lives. And it says a lot that someone can be so arrogant as to assume we don’t care and it doesn’t matter. Gingrich threw away his political life long ago. He just doesn’t see it. And since we’re living in a time when anybody can be a candidate for POTUS, we’re bound to have contests that involve who has the least baggage.

    • Agreed Jean. I felt a little odd being much more incensed by Clinton’s tawdriness than by his perjury, the thing that actually got him impeached. But it’s hard to come up with a fair moral compass with which to judge all these ambitious men and women. And so I look for clear violations — and otherwise assess the matter politically (which, I know, enables the bad behavior). I think Gingrich crossed the line.

  3. Jeff says:

    Newt is one of the more interesting characters in American politics over the last 30 years. lbwoodgate accurately hones the big, “what if?” of Gingrich’s career down to one flaw, fatal vanity. Were Newt the principled, reasonable, likable, and honest person he imagines, he likely would be the greatest political figure of our era. However, he was probably doomed from the very start. He was born with baggage and it didn’t get any easier. He was an orphan with the bad luck to be adopted by a Marine officer who beat Newt and his mother savagely. A terrible start in life, one that a better man might have overcome.

    However, there is more “history” on the former professor that rounds out his vanity and inappropriateness as a serious candidate for the highest office. There is the little matter of his first marriage to a woman, 7 years his senior, Jackie, who had been his high school geometry teacher. The fact he was 19 when he got married makes me a tad uneasy as to the genesis of that relationship. But alas, after a couple of exramarital affairs, Newt discovered Jackie “…wasn’t pretty enough to be first lady.” He left her for a mistress, Marianne, and served Jackie with divorce papers while she lay in a hospital recovering from cancer surgery. Newt and Jackie had two children but Newt refused to pay alimony or child support and their church took up a collection. Marianne’s fate proved no better, and soon there was Calista, 23 years his junior…and Newt’s personal story becomes more sordid than time, space, and dignity allow.

    A character reference from Tom DeLay should suffice to understanding what other Washington scoundrels thought of Newt as a leader, “Men with such secrets are not likely to sound a high moral tone at a moment of national crisis.” Or as Gingrich himself said to journalist Gail Sheehy, “I think you can write a psychological profile of me that says I found a way to immerse my insecurities in a cause large enough to justify whatever I wanted it to.” Huh?

    Let us hope that as soon we get the primaries started, or the draft Jeb or Christie movement bursts from the barn, we can leave the side shows, like circus freaks in a Fellini movie, on the side of the road and get down to the serious business of deciding which direction our country is headed.

    • If I didn’t make the case that even Newt’s baggage has baggage, you did. Cheers.

  4. bigdtootall says:

    Is it in the best interest of our nation to nominate the most electable at the cost of leaving the most qualified? I believe it was FDR who said, “Sometimes we must walk with the devil to cross a bridge.” Good generalship requires the wisdom to lose some battles to win the war but crossing with the devil seems like a sure fire way to hell. Are we not concerned that habitually nominating the most electable will take us in the same direction?

  5. William says:

    Thanks for this, Kendrick,

    I guess it’s time I get off the Newt rollercoaster once and for all.

    Good choice for nominee — oops wow, never mind, he said/did something stupid. Forget about that, good choice for nominee — oops, wow, never mind, he said/did something again.

    A brilliant guy, yes. But along with every good idea are two or three bad ones, and I’ll never be secure in thinking he’s a true conservative.

    I wish the Republican nominee field was stronger. No one great in the field of eight.

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