Little noted recently, with so much else in the political news of late, is the fact that Newt Gingrich’s standing in virtually all public opinion polls has risen somewhat dramatically.
This has to be taken with numerous grains of sea salt, of course, but I think it does tell us something about the incipient 2012 presidential campaign. (It is only two years until the nominating conventions). [A word of full disclosure: I have known Gingrich since 1984, and although I have not worked for him, I did work with him in creating and presenting the 2007 dialogue with him and Mario Cuomo at the Cooper Union in New York City.]
Gingrich’s potential candidacy is full of contradictions and assaults on conventional wisdom. He is over 60 years old. (I noted an op ed this week entitled “Don’t trust any politician over 50.”) He has numerous political warts and blemishes from his marital past. He did not leave his term as speaker of the House of Representatives on a positive note. And finally, he still has impetuous moments such as his intrusion in the special NY-23 congressional race last year. In a phrase, to many voters, and particularly to many political activists, Gingrich is “old hat” and “a man of the past.”
But is he? How can we explain, in an already large field of GOP potential candidates, his rise from lower single digits in the polls to poll numbers in the 20’s matching frontrunner Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin?
The answer is simple and complicated. First of all, Gingrich would like to be president, notwithstanding his stated willingness to be “realistic” and pass on the opportunity
if he can see he doesn’t have a chance. Second, he feels (and it difficult to refute) that he is uniquely qualified to be president. His experience in the legislative branch is unarguable, but his background as an historian, expert on military strategy, the depth of his knowledge of health policy, education, immigration issues and fiscal policy probably can’t be matched by any other GOP candidate. Third, Gingrich is the modern phoenix of U.S. politics, having departed from power in 1999 mostly in disgrace. Fourth, he is the only visibly potential Churchillian figure in American politics at a time when that may be exactly what the voters want. (In 1939, Churchill was old, discredited, controversial and “washed up.”)
Lest the reader conclude that Mr Gingrich is my choice for president at this point, I should point out that at least two other and younger/newer candidates have my attention. First, as I first pointed out a year ago, Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana is one of the most successful governors of any state today, has a terrific resume of executive and legislative experience, and by all accounts is a first class political act (although he lacks so far any notable charisma). Second, my own governor Tim Pawlenty started off weakly in 2003, having only won a plurality and facing a liberal Democratic legislature and a hostile press in the state. But since then, and especially in the past two years, he has masterfully defended a no-new-taxes and lower spending agenda against all odds. He is also, along with Gingrich, the best communicator in the GOP field, having a special knack for explaining the complicated issues facing the nation in easy to understand terms. However, Pawlenty has always been weak on organization, and this presents a serious problem for him as 2011-2012 approaches.
It is my belief that neither Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin will be presidential candidates in 2012. Obviously, each has a notable constituency and would be formidable in the nomination process. Frontrunner Mitt Romney has much going for him, including his formidable executive experience in private and public life, his quality run and gracious withdrawal in 2008, and his articulate manner. In spite of obvious public relations problem with his “Romneycare” legislation when he was governor of Masachusetts, all things being equal and normal, he is the “man to beat” in 2012.
But circumstances in America and the world are not “normal’ during this summer of 2010 and the foreseeable beyond. We not only face grievous natural and man-made disasters piling one on the other; a new and vicious terrorism is loosed in the world, explicitly threatening Western civilization; economic crisis assaulting the very fundamental fiscal institutions both at home and abroad, but we also face the demoralization of our culture and of our government institutions.
I am making no predictions here. The nomination of Newt Gingrich for president in 2012 remains a long shot. A year or so from now, my little essay may seem hopelessly dated and far-fetched.
Gingrich has remarkably kept himself in the public eye through his many “speculative” history novels, his non-fiction books (the latest is “To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine”), frequent speeches across the country and his public policy foundation American Solutions (with an e-mail list of millions in all 50 states). But all of that, unprecedented as it is, won’t make Newt Gingrich either the nominee of his party or president in 2012. Only a much larger and uncontrollable force could do that, that is, his favorite subject, history.