Steve Chapman

Newt Gingrich has a lot going for him if he decides to run for president -- a famous name, a record of accomplishment, a knack for raising money and a rhetorical flair that appeals to his party's conservative base. It's almost enough to make you forget his central handicap, which is that he is Newt Gingrich.

Succeed Barack Obama in the White House? Given his latest news making, he has a better chance of replacing Charlie Sheen in "Two and a Half Men."

The chief problem is not that Gingrich has been through two divorces and is married to a woman with whom he was having an affair while married to his second wife. Last week, he did himself no good by attributing his lapses to excessive work and patriotism. But Americans don't care that much about sexual probity in politicians.

They elected Bill Clinton after Gennifer Flowers came forward to say she had an affair with him. Following his impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair, he left office with the highest approval rating of any outgoing president going back to Dwight Eisenhower.

No, Gingrich suffers from a worse flaw: He is a demagogue, and demagogues don't get elected president of the United States. They get TV attention, they sometimes get big crowds, they even win the occasional primary. But their only essential function is to fail.

The presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, in a telephone conversation, says demagoguery can be defined as "extremism married to flamboyance, and it helps if you have delusions of grandeur." Those qualities, conspicuous in Gingrich, have shown up in other demagogues who aspired to the White House.

There was Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who railed against "anarchists" and "pseudo-intellectuals" while threatening treason charges for antiwar protesters. In 1968, he got 13 percent of the vote and carried five Southern states -- a strong showing for a third-party candidate, but nothing more.

There was Pat Buchanan, who ran in the Republican primaries in 1992 and 1996 excoriating gays, atheists and illegal immigrants, winning New Hampshire on his second try. But in the end, Republican voters overwhelmingly went for establishment candidates.

So poorly have rabble-rousers fared in actual presidential contests that they rarely even show up anymore, except in peripheral roles -- as with Republican Alan Keyes and Democrat Al Sharpton. There is no market for them.

The Republican Party, for all its conservative bent, has consistently passed up hard-core right-wingers in favor of comparative centrists, like Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000. The party's base rarely gets its heart's desire.


Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.
 

 
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