On Gingrich and grandiosity

A long-time reader writes to look back at last week’s GOP debate in Charleston:

To date, the most decisive moment of the lengthy Republican presidential debating season occurred when Newt Gingrich launched his tirade against CNN’s John King for raising the subject of Gingrich’s second marriage. But in my view, that moment was theatre, and revealed little. For me, the most revealing moment occurred in the same debate when Rick Santorum described Gingrich as “grandiose” and Gingrich concurred.

With Gingrich’s grandiosity undisputed, the question becomes whether this trait is a virtue in a national leader, as the former Speaker supposes, or a vice, as Santorum would have it.

The most grandiose president of my lifetime, with the possible exception of the current one, was Richard Nixon. I don’t understand Nixon to have been personally grandiose. By most accounts he was, instead, personally awkward. Awkwardness can produce the appearance of grandiosity, but it is not the same thing.

But Nixon produced a grandiose presidency. It was he, after all, who wanted to dress the White House guards in hats and tunics in the style of 19th century Prussia.

More significantly, Nixon’s presidency was intellectually grandiose, chock full of ambitious, outside-the-box policy ideas. The list includes wage-price controls, a negative income tax, racial quotas (the Philadelphia Plan), and outreach to Red China.

These policies had one thing in common – they came, more or less, from the playbook of Nixon’s enemies, not his supporters. Indeed, Nixon’s primary domestic policy adviser was a Democrat, Pat Moynihan, and his primary foreign policy adviser, Henry Kissinger, was considered a Rockefeller (i.e., liberal) Republican.

We can see the same tendency with Gingrich. In health care policy, he pushed the individual mandate. In environmental policy, he found common ground with Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry. His opposition to the surge in Iraq mirrored the nearly unanimous position of the left on this matter.

Adopting the ideas of one’s political adversaries is not the only possible result of political grandiosity, but it is the most natural. The grandiose thinker is not constrained by the limits of his faction’s ideology. Instead, he will want to break free of traditional ideology by synthesizing ideas across a broad spectrum. And the grandiose politician will dream of fundamentally transforming the political landscape by building a broad new coalition. This dream will likely lead to significant forays into the policy terrain of the opposition.

The alternative for a leader who wishes to be “transformative” is to influence, and lead, a pre-existing movement on the rise. Indeed, this is the path to true political transformation in a democracy, the one taken by Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. But the grandiose leader will be reluctant to become the instrument of an existing movement whose time is coming. He will find it far more tempting to try and create his own movement through the force of an intellect that identifies the value (and the error) in all existing ideological constructs.

Unfortunately, the “pick and choose” path, founded as it is on hubris and vanity, never seems to succeed. Certainly, it did not for Nixon.

Newt Gingrich would rather compare himself to Reagan than to Nixon. And Reagan was not immune to grandiose thinking. For example, he succumbed to it at Reykjavík with his proposal to eliminate all ballistic missiles within ten years.

But as a rule, Reagan stuck to the basics of the emerging conservative ideology of his day – low taxes, a less intrusive government, a strong national defense, and a foreign policy that sought to reward friends and punish enemies. Borrowing little from his adversaries, he accomplished grand things by keeping it simple, not grandiose.

Newt Gingrich seems temperamentally incapable of following such a course.

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