I’ve been meaning for a while now to circle around to Newt Gingrich’s quiet rise from the ranks of the also-also-rans of this campaign. I’ve been pretty hard on Newt here on Power Line over the last few months, most notably back in May after he got tangled in labeling Paul Ryan’s fiscal design “social engineering from the right.”
I noted here last month that with each debate “Newt Gingrich’s ‘it’s-so-crazy-it-just-might-work’ strategy for this race is looking a little less crazy,” but the right analogy might be that Newt’s tortoise and hare strategy is paying off. We know Newt didn’t run in 2008 partly because he thought it would be difficult to compete with Romney’s ability to self-fund a campaign if need be, though Newt might also have perceived, as Nixon did about GOP prospects for 1964, that 2012 would be a more favorable year for both him and the GOP. The same problem—Romney’s money advantage—is here this year, too, so Newt’s live-off-the-land strategy was a long shot, requiring one thing that Newt has often struggled with: discipline and focus. Newt has always had the worst case of political Attention-Deficit-Hyperactivity-Disorder since the beginning of clinical politics.
But lately Newt seems to have hit his stride. Did you happen to catch him on the “Center Seat” segment of Fox News’s “Special Report” last night? It was Newt at his best, and reminding us that then he is on his game there is no one better. Maybe the best part was when Steve Hayes played the infamous TV ad Newt cut with Nancy Pelosi three years ago about the “climate crisis” (about the 6:50 mark of the video). Newt didn’t finesse it: he straight out said, “That was the dumbest single thing I’ve done. . . simply inexplicable. . . it was just dumb.” Not often a politician admits a mistake that straightforwardly. And then he went on to give a concise account of the issue of climate and energy that tracks pretty closely with what I said on this site way back in the spring after Romney botched the issue.
So enter as witnesses Byron York in the Washington Examiner a couple days ago, and this morning Dorothy Rabinowitz in the Wall Street Journal (“Why Gingrich Could Win”), making the case for Newt even more strongly:
Whoever his competitors are in Iowa and beyond, Mr. Gingrich faces a hard fight for the nomination. His greatest asset lies in his capacity to speak to Americans as he has done, with such potency, during the Republican debates. No candidate in the field comes close to his talent for connection. There’s no underestimating the importance of such a power in the presidential election ahead, or any other one.
His rise in the polls suggests that more and more Republicans are absorbing that fact, along with the possibility that Mr. Gingrich’s qualifications all ’round could well make him the most formidable contender for the contest with Barack Obama.
So as Cain fades from the scene (I like Cain, but I’m sorry, he’s not ready for prime time presidential politics) and Perry continues to perform erratically, there’s a decent chance Newt will emerge as the not-Romney candidate. And then there will be a test to see whether the GOP “establishment,” such as it is, can put Romney over the top, and whether the Tea Party and other conservative grass roots Republicans will put aside their well-founded suspicions of Newt.
But beyond handicapping the primary campaign dynamics, Newt is doing something interesting and maybe profound: he is trying to run for president according to an older model that stresses substance over sound bytes and gimmicky, targeted campaign strategy. (Hence the emphasis on Lincoln-Douglas style debates that de-emphasize the place of the media questioners, among other things.) It is a bid to see whether presidential politics can still be conducted along the line of the old republic that would be more familiar to the Founders, to the style of public argument more akin to what Hamilton had in mind in talking about “refining and enlarging the public view” through “reflection and choice” in Federalist #1.
Footnote: Keep in mind one other thing from one of my previous comments here on Newt:
Whenever I think he is off his rocker, I remind myself that Newt was practically alone in thinking, from the first moment he arrived in Congress in 1979, that Republicans could take a majority in the House if it was sufficiently aggressive. Even as late as the eve of the 1994 election the conventional wisdom among political scientists and most journalists was that Democrats had a permanent majority in the House that the GOP could never break.