The Gingrich Paradox

by Victor Davis Hanson

Newt Gingrich finds himself in a paradox. For much of the early campaign, his polling numbers were near bottom. But as the debates wore on, voters gave him a second look for three reasons: 

1) He took the high road as the senior statesman, in mature fashion pleading with his rivals to focus their attention on Obama while faulting the efforts of the media to divide and reduce them all into acrimony; this was very effective since it met head-on worries about his earlier erratic and sometimes mean-spirited bomb-throwing career.

2) He clearly was the more informed on the issues, at least in an ad hoc fashion, in which viewers and rivals did not have instant access to his prior statements and actions to see whether there were any contradictions. When one compared his answers to those of a Perry or Cain, it was clear that he simply knew far more than almost any on the stage.

3) The non-Romneys, real and imagined — Perry, Bachmann, Cain, Daniels, Ryan, Giuliani, Christie, Palin, Trump, etc. — flamed out and crashed, giving him credence as the sole alternative to Romney.

But as he soared ahead on this strategy, he failed to understand the difference between surging and keeping a lead. It was one thing to talk in Platonic terms about being above the fray when no one was attacking him, and quite another when by needs as front-runner he was the logical focus of negative campaigning. Did he not grasp that this was inevitable rather than underhanded? 

Second, he learned that, as a front-runner, his often brilliant debating points would now be collated by what he had said, done, or written earlier, often revealing contradictions not apparent in the debates. Surely he could anticipate that scrutiny and answer it without getting petulant?

Third, Gingrich for some reason was unable to avoid the fates of other non-Romneys and thus after gaining voters from fading candidates he himself began fading for the same reason: Fairly or not, Romney continued to make the better argument that he alone was sober and judicious with the best chance of beating Obama, and come August would not have the press uncovering strange women, business deals, or other long-lost baggage, and would not say something silly.

Did Gingrich have alternatives, and does he still? Perhaps not. But in hindsight I think he should have stuck with defining himself as above the fray, ignored the attack ads, called for unity, and not engaged in the current “liar” type retorts. Had he continued to point out, in novel fashion, contradictions in the Obama record, and the biases of the media in reporting such, the stones would have begun to bounce off as mean-spirited, while a bloodied Gingrich nevertheless appeared principled and at some point re-earned the old empathy. A New Newt who proves his critics wrong by his present and future actions is far wiser than one who proves his critics right by returning to the Old Newt’s off-the-cuff anger.

So if he had contradictions in his past, then it was critical to erase memory of them by not spouting off and confining himself to just a few themes: the economy, foreign policy, and the dismal Obama record. Instead, he went off on tangential topics that played into his critics’ hands. They charged that the old Gingrich was pompous and fancied himself some sort of pop-new-waver; the new Gingrich could have countered that with humble and self-effacing admissions that we are all human and then gone on to explain the current issues in creative ways many of his rivals could not.

He also should have avoided the question of who is the more conservative — his own readjustments were as plentiful as Romney’s — and instead made the case that he is now more an electable conservative than Romney is supposed to be.

Right now, the debate is over whether Romney’s persistence is proof that he still cannot capture a majority of Republican voters, due to their grave doubts about his principles and beliefs, or that his continual front-runner status, even if only in the high 20s or low 30s, is proof that voters keep coming back to someone steady who they think can (perhaps alone can) be good enough to beat Obama, and whose presidency, while not Reaganesque, would be far preferable.

Gingrich is now understandably furious at Romney, but he does not seem to recognize that he was winning against all odds when he more or less copied Romney’s strategy of being above the fray, outsourcing negative attacks to others, focusing on Obama, and by steady comportment and careful, disciplined speech reassuring voters that he could win in November. 

Except for one unnecessarily abrasive interview, Romney has quite wisely stuck with what was working for him, and Gingrich hasn’t.

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