Newt Gingrich has been the subject of well-deserved criticism as he attempts to be the “outside-insider” candidate to win the Republican presidential nomination. Because he is such a fun target for many Republicans as well as virtually all Democrats, there is little discrimination in the criticism directed his way. Many of his opponents acknowledge that he has smarts – perhaps more than any of the other Republican candidates. However, whenever he speaks truth to power, he is treated as the same piñata as when he pontificates on family values, while having left two wives who were recovering from serious illnesses in hospitals. He also led the impeachment charade against Bill Clinton, while having his own affair a few hundred feet from the House floor.
Democrats have good reason to fear that Republican presidents will be reckless. Criticizing a candidate for being potentially dangerous and a loose cannon is fair game and within the bounds of political correctness. However, to speak about a candidate not being intelligent or educated enough to be president is not acceptable, either politically or to the P.C. police. So when Democrats want to talk about the intellectual capabilities of a George W. Bush, Dan Quayle, or Sarah Palin, they have two choices. They can whisper to one another, now more feasible with the growth of the blogosphere. Or they can leave it to comedians such as Jon Stewart or Bill Maher to say what everyone else is thinking. Particularly in Stewart’s case, he validates his mocking of intellectually challenged candidates through use the magic of TiVo and by nailing them with their own quotes.
But Newt can’t buy a break. Shortly after announcing his candidacy, he appeared on Meet the Press. In response to a question from David Gregory about Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) voucher plan to cut Medicare costs, Gingrich said, “I don’t think that right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering.”
Gingrich was not criticized by people on the left, because they see right-wing engineering as curtailing reproductive rights, gay rights, civil rights, and a host of other human rights. While they may not agree with Gingrich on many things, the “Meet the Press” statement with a libertarian tinge to it was acceptable, perhaps refreshing.
However, Gingrich was immediately skewered by Republicans for violating Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Clearly, Gingrich’s propensity to consider ideas not in the standard Republican playbook is unacceptable, because that playbook does not include any provision for free thought.
Regrettably for Gingrich, he often undermines his independent thinking by allowing himself to be bullied by his colleagues. While Anthony Weiner showed how awkward it is to step back from an indiscretion, Gingrich showed how awkward it is to step back from truth to falsehood. First he said that he didn’t mean what he said on Meet the Press; then he said that David Gregory’s question was a “gotcha” (listen to the question on the tape, and you’ll find that hard to believe); and finally he took Apology Road and professed his respect for Paul Ryan and loyalty to the party line.
Gingrich appeared on Meet the Press on Sunday, May 15, and the next major event for Republican candidates was a so-called debate in New Hampshire on Monday, June 13. Many of the other candidates were beating the hustings in Iowa where the first caucus will be, and New Hampshire, where the first primary will be. Gingrich, who certainly did not have the reputation of a family man, decided to take a two week Mediterranean cruise with his latest wife, Callista. Apparently, her name means “thoroughly beautiful” in Greek, and that was important enough to her for her to want to visit the country. Newt wanted to please and also saw the cruise as an opportunity to research issues and clarify his positions on various issues. That was playing to his forte; unlike some of the other Republican candidates, he knows how to study and to utilize information to form arguments.
Unfortunately for him, his campaign staff did not see the cruise as time well spent, and on June 9 they resigned en masse. This was basically unprecedented in American politics. They could not believe that he would not dedicate every waking moment to meeting with party officials and voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.
It may be that Gingrich realized the absurd importance that most politicians and pundits place on these two relatively small states. To a large extent, voters in these two states judge a candidate by how much time he or she spends in the state. The voters have every right to do this, but in a rational world, they would lose their right to accuse a candidate of being petty by not setting up camp in their state. Those candidates who focus on Iowa and New Hampshire (i.e. those who usually win the nominations) choose to play along with our absurd system of caucuses and primariess. Iowa and New Hampshire each have less than 1% of the nation’s population. Why should candidates spend close to 100% of their time in these two states over the first six months of the campaign?
Gingrich never said that he took the cruise because he felt that there was too much emphasis on Iowa and New Hampshire. However, he’s smart enough to know that the system is flawed. Perhaps he’s also impatient enough to choose to avoid the tedium and boredom of endless and mindless campaigning.
In any event, Gingrich’s decision to take the cruise was more than his staff and many of his supporters could take. When the June 13 debate finally rolled around, Gingrich showed that he was the class of the field when it came to factual knowledge and creative thinking.
It appears to all have been for naught. His liabilities as a candidate who reasonable voters could respect and support are far too great. No one has to look hard to find ways to question Gingrich’s character and his viability as a candidate. With that being the case, perhaps he can be respected for those moments when he exercises command of facts, wisdom, good judgment, and a keen eye for the absurd. There is a second side to the “Newt Coin,” and it includes a few virtues. There’s no need to criticize him for everything. Perhaps he understood this when he traveled to Greece, understanding that the best he could be was not a winner, but rather a tragic Greek figure whose flaws were far too many for any virtues to surmount.