The Gingrich Factor

Apparently Newt Gingrich is going to announce today that he is forming a presidential exploratory committee (or its equivalent). Many people on the left scoff at the notion of Gingrich being able to mount a serious campaign, pointing to his embarrassed departure from the speakership in 1998, his messy private life, and the sickbed divorces. (If more recent problems are your preference, there’s his flip flops on Libya and the Kenyan neocolonialism.) They wonder why he is running.

Because he thinks he can win. Or perhaps because he is destined to win. “The thing you have to understand about Newt is that he is, by training and temperament, an avid historian, and he is as true a believer as you will ever find in the concept of destiny,”
writes Matt Bai in The New York Times today. “He imagined himself — and, reasonably or not, still does — as a lead protagonist in the history of his own time, a consequential character in the grand American narrative.”

Bai says Gingrich is particularly enamored of the historian Arnold J. Toynbee and his concept of “departure and return” — the idea that great leaders have to leave (or be banished from) their kingdoms before they can better themselves and return as conquering heroes. “One of Newt’s heroes, the French general and statesman Charles de Gaulle, embodies just this kind of romantic narrative, having spent 12 years out of power before returning to lead his country. So does Ronald Reagan, who traveled the country after losing his bid for the Republican nomination in 1976, then came roaring back to win it all four years later.” Bai thinks it would be most apt to include Richard Nixon in that list.

I think there is a plausible scenario for the Gingrich candidacy. First, Gingrich is a smart guy who can usually be depended on to lay down a smart-sounding argument. Second, he has never left the core of the Republican party; he may not always have delighted them, but he has always been theirs. Third–and here’s the big thing–there are no heavyweights in the race, and a lot of midgets. Gingrich can stand to-to-toe with anyone now in the field, and perhaps anyone likely to get into the field, and prevail. And of course, the less seriously people take him now, the more triumphant he will look when he outperforms expectations.

It is plausible that he can win the nomination; and were he to do that, well, it’s like the World Series: either one team wins, or the other, and it ain’t always the favorite. Gingrich would not be intimidated sharing the stage with Barack Obama. With most of the Republican field, Obama would have to be careful to avoid looking like he was punching down. You can see Michelle Bachman winning the nomination; you cannot seeing her standing on the same stage with him and outperforming him. Mitt Romney (who resembles, in the words of Jon Stewart, the spokesmodel in an erectile dysfunction ad), simply doesn’t generate enthusiasm; it will be hard for him to knock Obama down. But Gingrich would land some punches, and maybe a haymaker.

Gingrich’s problem, of course, is that he has never known when to shut up. He talks for dramatic effect. He spouts outrageous nonsense, and then wastes time devoting his considerable intellect to defending himself. He has no message discipline, and he has yet to develop a line on Obama that has some stickiness. When Gingrich is on a winning streak, he is a formidable force; but because he sees himself as a man of destiny, he consistently overplays his hand. And when he starts losing, he implodes fast.

Newt Gingrich is the Chuck Wepner of 2012. The Bayonne Bleeder went 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali in 1975, and everybody knew that if Wepner managed to clock Ali with a roundhouse, even the champ would go down. In the ninth round, Wepner appeared to knock Ali down, although it appeared that Wepner stepped on Ali’s foot. But after that, a pissed-off Ali went to school on Wepner’s face, and the belt was not yielded to the underdog.

[Cross-posted at JamieMalanoski.com]

Jamie Malanowski

Jamie Malanowski is a writer and editor. He has been an editor at Time, Esquire and most recently Playboy, where he was Managing Editor.