Let me first do what some in this business fail to do: Reveal a potential conflict of interest and remind readers that I served as Newt Gingrich’s political chairman before and while he was speaker of the House. I’ve known him 30 years. But those who follow this column, including Gingrich, have not always enjoyed my views on some of his words or actions.
Newt knows I am an independent thinker, and while I’m not on his level of political genius, I might be a bit more in touch with the daily grind that faces most Americans every day.
So what’s my take on this week’s disclosure from Newt that he might run for president in 2012? First comes an initial, perhaps superficial reaction: Mitt Romney seems more charismatic, better organized and hungrier for the job than any other potential 2012 candidate. Sarah Palin is attractive, also charismatic and an ambitious potential candidate. Even Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is not well known, has a lot of “curb appeal” as a young candidate on the rise.
But I don’t discount a Gingrich run. The presidential campaign of 2008 was about style over content. John McCain won GOP the nomination because Mike Huckabee, who shocked the Republicans by winning in Iowa, was viewed as perhaps too socially conservative. Romney seemed stiffer and “slicker” that year. He was too closely aligned with the unpopular George W. Bush camp. The GOP voters went for the image of “the maverick” in John McCain. It didn’t work.
As for the Democrats and ultimately the nation, the elegant, charming and oratorically gifted Barack Obama represented a “change” as much in style as in substance. Oh, yes, there ultimately was plenty of substance in the change Obama brought to the nation as president. It just has not been the kind of change that many independent voters who supported him were expecting.
I have seen Newt Gingrich reinvent — or perhaps better to say, “evolve” — many times in his career. First, he was the bright new Republican conservative thinker in an overwhelmingly majority Democratic House in the late 1970s and the 1980s. By the early 1990s, he was the bomb-throwing, take-no-prisoners fighter who helped oust Speaker Jim Wright from power. By the mid-1990s, he was still a “revolutionary,” but one with a detailed plan of action and a band of Republican “brothers and sisters” in the House willing to follow his lead to a huge 1994 electoral takeover of that chamber.
Then there were the years in the “wilderness,” a term once used to describe Winston Churchill after his having led his nation through World War II, only to be later tossed out of power, at least for a while. Gingrich resigned after much internal GOP fighting. Yes, there is always the “he has baggage” argument. But years have passed, and Americans have short memories and forgiving hearts.
Now we see Newt Gingrich the “elder statesman.” When Gingrich speaks, not only do cable news, talk radio and conservative popular news and opinion sites take note, so too does the “media establishment” that once ruled the airwaves and print journalism in America.
No, Gingrich will never match a Palin or Romney in a contest of style or youthful appearance. But in 2012, he will be the same age as Ronald Reagan was when he won the presidency for the first time. In that contest, the dashing John Connally and the elegant George H.W. Bush were viewed as the early frontrunners in the GOP race, along with other younger stars like Howard Baker.
Remember how Reagan moved from being viewed as an elder conservative also-ran to frontrunner status. It was one debate held in New Hampshire where the establishment GOP tried to keep Reagan from speaking. “I paid for this microphone,” Reagan blasted as the moderator attempted to have him silenced.
And while I often discount the power of debates, it was the CNN/YouTube debate late in 2007 that catapulted Mike Huckabee toward a win in Iowa. And if you really want to reach back in time, I can name several presidential contests in which the debates turned the tide and the outcome of the election.
I can see Gingrich potentially playing roles like these. He is not an unappealing man. His grey hair and the calm manner in which he analyses issues gives those who view him a sense that there is still around at least this one bright, able — and stable — statesman. Do you really think any of the Republican contenders — to say nothing of Barack Obama — would want to debate Newt Gingrich?
A Gingrich run is more plausible than many think. Depending on an assortment of factors, it could just work for the Republican Party.