the national interest

The Brilliance of Newt Gingrich

GREENVILLE, SC - DECEMBER 8: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich leads a forum with South Carolina business leaders at The Global Trading Consortium on December 8, 2011 in Greenville, South Carolina. Gingrich has recently made a sudden surge in the polls. (Photo by John W. Adkisson/Getty Images)
A beautiful mind. Photo: John W. Adkisson/2011 Getty Images

What makes Newt Gingrich so entertaining is that he is able to combine an adolescent arrogance with a childlike capacity to live in the exact moment, with no sense of the past or the future. Everything is always perfectly obvious, even when it is the exact opposite of what he believed before. He can toggle between perfectly obvious conclusions at will.

The Gingrich intellectual style is on perfect display in this short passage today:

Mr. Gingrich on Monday acknowledged the drubbing his campaign was taking. “You have enough negative ads thrown at you, your numbers go down,” he told reporters in Davenport. He blamed a campaign-finance system that allows “uncontrolled billionaires out there spending money in ways that are totally outside a responsible structure.”

It’s frankly very disappointing to see some of my friends running to put out so much negative junk,” he said. “I wish they would have the courage to be positive.”

Let’s begin with the final bit and move backwards. Gingrich is oh so disappointed that his rivals are saying negative things about him. Keep in mind that Gingrich is the man whose seminal contribution to American politics was to break down the postwar social norms of bipartisan collegiality. This was Gingrich speaking to College Republicans in 1978:

I think that one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty. We encourage you to be neat, obedient, and loyal and faithful and all those Boy Scout words, which would be great around the camp fire, but are lousy in politics.

And of course Gingrich led his party to the majority in part by encouraging them to assail the Democratic majority in the starkest possible terms:

In 1990, when he was not yet Speaker, he pressed a memo on Republican candidates for office, instructing them to use certain words when talking about the Democratic enemy: “betray,” “bizarre,” “decay,” “anti-flag,” “anti-family,” “pathetic,” “lie,” “cheat,” “radical,” “sick,” “traitors,” and more.

So let’s just say his current moralistic embrace of positive campaigning is a little bit discordant with his career.

Next, consider Gingrich’s condemnation of the campaign finance system. Here is Newt expressing his thoughts about the Citizens United decision, which opened the door for the unlimited independent expenditures currently pummeling him:

It was perfectly obvious to Gingrich that the decision was correct and that campaign finance regulation was absolutely inimical to a free society.

Perhaps the best comic touch is his droll observation about the effect of negative ads. A few weeks ago Gingrich declared he was almost certain to win the primaries because – duh! – he was ahead in the polls:

It’s very hard not to look at the recent polls and think that the odds are very high I’m going to be the nominee. And by the way I don’t object if people want to attack me, that’s their right. All I’m suggesting that it’s not going to be very effective and that people are going to get sick of it very fast.

Obviously Newt was going to win! Look at the polls! And of course negative ads would not do anything to change those polls. Except now it is perfectly clear that the opposite is the case. For a self-styled historian and futurist, Gingrich has an unusually poor grasp of both the past and the future. He prefers to reside in a present in which he sees everything with perfect clarity.

The Brilliance of Newt Gingrich