The question of Newt

Eight years ago there were obvious front-runners for the Presidency: George W Bush and Al Gore. Today, the battle in both parties is far more open. I have already looked at the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and John McCain . It is time to look at the most interesting candidate in either party: Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich has a remarkable history. He galvanized the Republican Party around a national agenda in 1994, and became the Party’s first Speaker in decades. He established the first enduring Republican majority since the 1920s. And yet, it is his successor, Denny Hastert, who became the longest serving Republican Speaker ever. Gingrich’s own leadership was brought down amid controversy and scandal. The scandals may have been minor – sexual indiscretions without the complication of perjury, and question marks over a book deal – but Gingrich proved unable to ride them out. Why?

Because he had been comprehensively out-maneuvered by Bill Clinton. Gingrich, with his historian’s eye, had hoped to restore the Speakership to its historic place as the dominant force in domestic policy. With the Cold War over, Gingrich saw this as achievable. Yet the growth in the federal government during the Twentieth Century probably made it impossible. By World War One, the federal government had acquired its own tax-raising powers. The Speaker also acquired a Congressional rival, when the Senate moved to direct elections.

But the failings were personal, too. Gingrich fizzes with ideas. He is a visionary, with an eye for the broad sweep of American history. He isn’t always right, but he is always interesting. The Speaker’s Chair does not require those talents. It is about minutiae, not vision; about compromise, not ideology. The job involved cobbling together majorities for legislation. He sub-contracted that role to his Whip, Tom DeLay, who pretty soon took over the entire shop.

Gingrich’s talents are not suited to legislative leadership, but are perhaps just right for an executive role. Unfortunately, there is a problem. Gingrich the President has to first of all become Gingrich the candidate. After leaving the House he publicly mused on the possibility of seeking the Governorship of Georgia. When elected to the House, Gingrich had been the only Republican in the Georgia delegation. By 1994 Republicans were the majority. The state had never elected a Republican governor, but perhaps the time was now right. For whatever reason, Gingrich decided against. He may have believed the incumbent, Roy Barnes, was unbeatable. If so he was wrong, Barnes was defeated by another Republican, Sonny Perdue. If Gingrich were now the successful Governor of a medium-sized state he would have rebuilt that damaged reputation. As a writer and college professor he has not.

Gingrich remains a deeply polarizing figure. He will find it hard to win the Republican nomination (despite a loyal following) and if selected, he would be a major target for the Democrat attack machine. He would be a hard sell to the electorate. But even without winning, Gingrich could shake up the race. Others will have to react to his ideas. This is the man who forced a reluctant Bill Clinton to accept welfare reform and a balanced budget. But it is also the man who has allowed Clinton to take the credit. And that tells us everything we need to know: a great eye for policy; poor instincts for politics.

Quentin Langley is editor of an academic at the University of Cardiff and is a columnist with Campaigns & Elections. This article was first published in the Common Sense series for Lake Champlain Weekly.

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