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The Downside of Being the Smartest Guy in the Room



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For what it’s worth, I’m still a fan of Gingrich. I still believe that, among politicians, and with the exception of Bill Clinton, he’s the best extemporaneous political speaker in America. He’s shown me personal kindnesses as well and, as I’ve disclosed many times, my wife once worked for him. But, as the kids say, he needs to check himself before he wrecks himself — if he hasn’t already (BTW I fully expect the vast majority of commenters to fall into the “it’s too late for Newt” column).

In addition to Rich’s excellent column on Newt, I’d recommend the Wall Street Journal’s editorial, particularly this passage:

Yet now he is trashing Mr. Ryan for thinking far more deeply about health care, and in a far more principled fashion, than Mr. Gingrich ever has. The episode reveals the Georgian’s weakness as a candidate, and especially as a potential President—to wit, his odd combination of partisan, divisive rhetoric and poll-driven policy timidity.

This is the best single line explaining the contradictions of Gingrichian politics. Gingrich is very wedded to the idea that he should be on the majority side of every major public policy issue. That’s why he believes in framing policy questions so they become “70-30 issues” (or sometimes even “80-20″ issues) — i.e. issues where he’s on the side of 70 percent of Americans against the 30 percent “elite.”

As a political formula, there’s much to recommend this. But there are a couple problems as well. First, simply rephrasing the issues so that 70 percent of those polled agree with you is not the same thing as actually finding a policy that a super-majority of the public will rally behind (or get through Congress). Polarizing rhetoric does not automatically yield support for polarized policy. So that’s why — or at least partly why — Gingrich “frames” things in such stark terms while adhering to fairly timid policies.

One exception of course is when he proposes win-win policies that seem visionary (sometimes because they are) but are also about 10 steps ahead of where we actually are and hence take little political courage and therefore come at little political cost.

For instance, yesterday Jim Pinkerton defended Newt in the Corner by pointing to the fact that Newt’s policy prescription on Alzheimer’s disease is to “cure it.” I think Gingrich and Pinkerton make a great point about how cures are cheaper than care. But come on. Who’s against curing Alzheimer’s? While we’re at it, let’s cure all of the diseases and save trillions. In the meantime what do we do about health care costs today? Newt’s immediate policy proposals on Meet the Press were twofold: attack fraud and “start a conversation.”

One major source of Newt’s problems is that he is almost always the smartest guy in the room. Compounding this problem is an ability and compulsion to defend any position he takes. For a politician this can be an enormous problem because it creates a climate where he can’t take unwelcome advice from his staff. I don’t mean because he’s a bullying boss — I know many people who have worked for Newt, including my wife, and by all accounts he’s a very generous and decent employer and a surprisingly good listener. The problem is that he can always “win” the arguments about whether he made a mistake. It would be interesting to know if after his Meet the Press interview anybody on Newt’s staff told him, “Uh, sir, that stuff about Paul Ryan’s budget and the individual mandate is going to create huge problems.” If no one said something like that, it’s a bad sign, either because they couldn’t see the obvious either, or because they were afraid to tell the boss the truth.

You can’t run for president of the United States with a staff of advisers who think everything you do is a homerun. Well, you can, but you can’t possibly win.

Update: Already a slew of readers tell me that Obama disproves the last graf. Maybe so. But for reasons good and bad Newt is not Obama and Obama is not Newt. So for the sake clarity, let’s change the word “you” in the final two sentences (“You can’t run for president…” to “Newt”).



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