I did not participate in the writing of our editorial, so it is not self-praise when I say this was a brave and necessary act. It may be too late; voters may have made up their minds already; but it was nonetheless an important venture in truth telling. (“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.”) I understand perfectly well why Gingrich is having this surge of popularity: There is a sense that our system is so broken that only a radical shift away from politics as usual can possibly get America pointed back in the right direction; and that anybody who disagrees with that assessment must just be a hack who wants to go on feeding at the public trough. I had this feeling myself for a moment today. As literary editor at NR, I get a stack of advance copies of books from publishers every day, and in the stack today was a book by Arlen Specter that will be published next March, titled Life Among the Cannibals: A Political Career, A Tea Party Uprising, and the End of Governing as We Know It. That last part really stuck in my craw — isn’t “governing as we know it” exactly what landed America in its current predicament? It was decades of bipartisan business-as-usual that left us facing the abyss of economic catastrophe today. “The end of governing as we know it”? Sign me up.
But that leaves the all-important question of whether Newt Gingrich is a credible agent for this positive change. At this point, most writers will chuckle about the revolutionary who wants to change government, but only after he gets his $1.6 million in Freddie Mac government dough; but I personally don’t find that disqualifying, because I think it merely shows that Gingrich is smart enough to work the system to his own benefit. There’s no shame in that: The deeper question is, does he have the skills and temperament to work the system in our — the citizenry’s — benefit? And his record of amazingly erratic gyrations over the years — and on Libya, and on the Ryan plan, in the last year alone — makes me very skeptical. I don’t know what a President Gingrich’s policies would actually be — and neither, I suspect, from week to week, would he.
Which brings me to the most troubling part of the Gingrich candidacy for me: I have the same unsettled feeling about him that I had about Barack Obama in 2008. The guy sure can talk, but what would he actually do? In Barack Obama’s case, the problem was that he spoke in meaningless post-partisan generalities; in Gingrich’s case, that his tide of words ends up being self-contradictory and unhelpful. When Obama was elected, I tried to be hopeful, thinking, “Well, who knows? If he’s a tabula rasa, maybe something worthwhile will be written on that tabula rasa over the next four years, that will make him a positive transformative figure for America in some unpredictable way.” Not being an exceptionally naïve person, I pegged the probability of this at about 5 percent. We all know how that turned out.
I recently recounted this to a savvy political thinker who has been following the GOP primaries, and posed the same question with regard to Newt. “I know Newt is unpredictable and erratic, so we don’t really know what we’ll get if he’s elected. What are the chances that he might, in office, turn out to be a positive transformative figure for America?” The political guy said, “One and a half?”
Again, I understand where the Newt movement is coming from. I was telling colleagues the other day how impressed I am with his intellectual curiosity. I know all the snide remarks about Gingrich being “a dumb person’s idea of a smart person,” and I think they miss the mark. There are plenty of people with high IQs in politics who show none of Newt’s passion for ideas. (I’m sure, for example, that Barack Obama has a stratospheric IQ, but he doesn’t seem to give a damn about anything; and his intellectual fecklessness has been an important cause of the failure of his presidency.) It’s a shame that there are so few intellectually curious people in U.S. politics. But I think this particular one is not a good bet.