Thursday, February 23, 2012

Almost Gone, But Not Forgotten

Last week my good friend and podcast colleague John Hinderaker launched another salvo against the Presidential candidacy of Newt Gringrich. Give him credit for at least being consistent. He has dogged Newt’s prospects repeatedly since their rise to respectability in the polls just before the Iowa Caucus. On the bright side, with Gingrich’s campaign now in what may be a death spiral, perhaps this is the last time I’ll have to hear his intemperate arguments toward this conservative standard bearer.

Before his rhetoric fades into history, I find it necessary to refute it one more time. The Internet archiveologists from the future (from distant, weird planets), need to know there was a counter argument!

From his Power Line post of last week:
It was obvious to everyone who remembered the history of the 1990s that Gingrich would be a disaster as a presidential candidate, however much we may enjoy his repartee and respect him as a thinker whose ideas are often good. Yet millions of Republican activists, heedless of the past and ignoring Newt’s obvious weaknesses, enthused over him as a candidate and made him the man of the hour. Or the man of two or three weeks, maybe.
Well, not all of those who vividly remember the history of the 1990s (such as ME) thought it was obvious that Newt’s candidacy this year would be a disaster.

I assume John is referring to how Newt’s Congressional career ended (with his resignation), and his low national approval ratings, as the “obvious” disqualifying history. Multiple factors led to this outcome. The combative leadership style that served Gingrich and his party so well in his rise to power in the early 90s had alienated even Republican members of the House. Bill Clinton had masterfully triangulated him on the issues, co-opting most of the benefits of the policy successes Gingrich achieved. The press did their standard hit job on his image. And the Democrats in Congress threw up a flurry of false accusations and ethics charges (of which Gingrich was ultimately exonerated).

The combination of these factors led to Charlie Sheen level approval ratings and even a revolt against him by the more radical Republican members of Congress. The GOP losing seats in the 1998 Congressional elections, and the emotional fall out of Clinton’s impeachment trial paired with word leaking out about Gingrich’s infidelities, ultimately finished Newt off. He resigned from the Speakership and Congress.

I will grant John one point, that absolutely, positively, Newt could not have won a national election in 1998.

But we are not living in 1998. That was 14 years ago, an eon in political years. There was no reason to assume that Newt Gingrich couldn’t have become a reformed and better man over this period. History is laden with examples of once losing or disgraced politicians learning from their experience and returning stronger than before: Winston Churchill, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Marion Berry. (OK, not all of these are examples of becoming a better man, but two out of four ain’t bad.)

With age and wisdom, Gingrich’s problems were eminently curable. I’m not saying it’s easy to stop being arrogant, prideful, vindictive, skeezy, etc. But it is certainly possible.

If Newt had overcome these issues, one could then focus on his qualifications for the office, which are substantial. He’s intelligent, quick-thinking, and a creative thinker. He has the ability to articulate a conservative vision of governance that is persuasive. He’s a fighter for the causes he believes in and has a taste for the jugular. He’s got a solid record of accomplishment His Republican revolution of 1994, and the resulting policy changes, are the greatest Republican victories of the last 20 years. He knows how to pass legislation, he knows how to make advantageous deals with the opposition, he knows the pitfalls and pratfalls that the Washington establishment creates for any Republican. He’s articulate and clean and a nice looking guy, I mean that’s a storybook man. (That last sentence contributed by Joe Biden).

Combine that record and skill set with those of the other available candidates and there is no question who was the most qualified person for the job of President of the United States. Add to the mix Newt’s statesmanlike performance in the early debates and it was perfectly reasonable to “enthuse” about his candidacy. He could win and could be a great conservative president. Could you have said the same, with absolute certainty, about Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, John Huntsman, Herman Cain, etc.?

As we now know, Newt doesn’t appear to be an entirely reformed man. His reaction to the Romney’s campaign’s negative attacks revealed that the worst of Gingrich is still close to the surface. And with that, the specter of the late-90s vintage Newt hangs heavy over his prospects. Those prospects, as reflected in recent polling, are:

A CNN/Opinion Research poll showed 63 percent of All Americans viewed Gingrich unfavorably, compared to just 25 percent who saw him in a positive light.

Even accounting for the normal CNN bias/error rate, that is a sobering assessment of Gingrich’s viability in the general election, and a consideration that would have to be taken into account when deciding who to vote for in a primary.

John Hinderaker’s comments reflect the pragmatic determinism of his thinking (or is it his determined pragmatism?):

When I got ready to leave and put my jacket on, the guy who was working behind the lanes spotted the jacket and said he liked it. “Who you voting for?” he asked. “Newt?” I said something to the effect that I didn’t think so; we really need to win this one.

Yes, there is a time for practicality when deciding who to vote for. (Cue the ghost of Christine O’Donnell). But that time is not when the field is wide open, or before the primary season is even half over. That is the time to dream big dreams and enthuse over who you *think* might be the best man for the job. Dismiss him too early, and he’ll never get a chance to prove you right.

John wraps up with this comment about not just the rise of Gingrich, but also the rise of the other GOP poll leaders of the week (assumedly Santorum, Cain, Perry, and Bachmann):

The same pattern has been repeated more than once during the current, discouraging presidential nominating process. If the GOP loses this year’s presidential contest, the party will have no one to blame but its own activists.

Among those who have endorsed Gingrich are Thomas Sowell, Peter Robinson, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, JC Watts, Art Laffer, Fred Thompson, and Michael Reagan. If those are the irresponsible “activists” who are leading the GOP astray, I’d be proud to be counted in their number.