On May 20, 2007, Tim Russert had a quirky segment on "Meet the Press." His guests were Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), who's running for president even though nobody knows it, and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who isn't running but everyone knows he really is. In the middle of the back and forth, Gingrich was in the midst of rattling off one mistake after another made by the Democrat Congress in particular and Democrat Party in general, with regard to Iraq and national security. Russert stepped in with what is normally the best weapon a journalist has against a typical politician on a rant: "But specifically, what would you do differently?"
Without missing a beat, Gingrich quickly rattled off an eight-sentence, 165-word, perfectly constructed paragraph detailing six specific presidential policy initiatives, dropping in along the way references to Iraqi force capacity, economic diplomacy, a naval blockade of Iran, biometrics and Abraham Lincoln.
Whatever else can be said of Newt Gingrich, he is not a typical politician.
Brilliant and unpredictable Newt
He applies to public policy a knowledge of history that is simply unmatched in professional politics today. It's cliché to say someone's brain is like a sponge, but in Gingrich's case it applies doubly so -- not only does he absorb and retain almost every piece of information he encounters, but he can, with the slightest squeeze, blurt it back out at you in a different way from which it came in.
He's the closest real-world comparison to the "West Wing's" President Josiah Bartlet -- quirky, unpredictable and almost impossibly brilliant. And while those qualities make for an engaging character -- especially when viewers demand a whole new series of issues to be introduced, debated and disposed of every week -- in real life there is something to be said for predictability in political leadership.
A good example of what I mean is Gingrich's widely hailed performance in his recent debate against Sen. John F. Kerry about global warming. Now, having dealt with both of them, I would have expected Gingrich to clean Kerry's clock. And he did, just not in the way I -- or anyone else -- expected.
Rather than attack the global warming fundamentalists' reliance on junk science, Gingrich conceded at the beginning of the debate that global warming does exist and is largely mankind's fault. Gingrich thus neutralized 95 percent of what Kerry planned to say, and turned the discussion away from whether global warming exists to what policymakers should do about it. Kerry was caught flat-footed and came across as out of touch; Gingrich had the debate he prepared for and appeared confident, informed and optimistic. It was a wonderful achievement of political and rhetorical jujitsu, which is great, … but then again, he turned his back on millions of conservatives who justifiably question global warming hysteria.
This is the quintessential, irreducible Gingrich: tactically brilliant, strategically unpredictable. Yes, he cleaned Kerry's clock, but not until after he accepted Kerry's principal argument. He won the battle, but it's not clear his victory helped win the war. This is why conservatives mix admiration and skepticism when asked about his potential presidential candidacy.
His presence in a debate up against the trite, over-rehearsed pabulum of his opponents will quickly propel him to the top tier of the field. I think he'll be a fantastic presidential candidate; he'll run circles around the other guys in the debates (and it's a deep Republican field, remember).
More ideas than the GOP can handle
But what? I don't know. No one does. But experience suggests there will be a "But…"
As speaker, Gingrich's greatest strength was his greatest weakness -- that hyperkinetic brain of his generated more ideas than the Republican conference could manage at once. Sometimes Newt's Next Big Idea would change three times in a week. They'd all be brilliant, they'd usually be good, but the unpredictability left many Republicans unsure as to where he was leading us.
It's possible this weakness would be less of a problem in the executive branch than the legislative -- after all, John F. Kennedy was reputed to have had a similar type of mind and he was a much better president than legislator. It's also possible that he has learned from his past mistakes -- there has certainly been no shortage of media analysis of them.
All of this is to say that Gingrich would make a fascinating presidential candidate, unlike anything the 2008 race (or any other election year) has yet seen. I'm not sure I'd support his candidacy in the end, but I am sure it'd be a helluva thing to watch.