Politics & Policy

The Myth of the New Newt

The Old Newt isn’t a relic of history yet.

If Newt Gingrich is the Republican nominee, he promises to hound Pres. Barack Obama until he agrees to appear with him at a series of Lincoln-Douglas-style three-hour debates. This is a cutting-edge Gingrich proposal — that he has been making since at least 1992.

Back then, he was challenging Boston mayor Ray Flynn to Lincoln-Douglas debates on urban issues. Gingrich’s obsession with the clash between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas in the 1858 Illinois Senate race isn’t new and interesting; it is a trope of his going back decades. 

The “New Newt” surging in the Republican polls overlaps so significantly with the former version that the “Old Newt” should be suing for copyright infringement.

The New Newt talks of teaching a course as president; the Old Newt came to grief teaching a course as House speaker. The New Newt is outraging the Left by saying poor kids should work; the Old Newt provoked his opponents by saying more kids should be in orphanages. The New Newt’s presidential campaign has at times seemed a vast book tour; the Old Newt immediately got embroiled in a controversy over a multimillion-dollar book deal as speaker.

The New Newt says he’s 68 years old and therefore has mellowed and matured. He was 65 years and a few months old when he opposed TARP and then supported it. He was still just 67 years old when he criticized President Obama for not instituting a no-fly zone over Libya and then criticized him for doing it. He was on the cusp of 68 when he denounced Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform as “right-wing social engineering,” before contorting himself to explain it away.

We should all envy Newt Gingrich’s vitality that he has been capable of such youthful indiscretions in his mid to late 60s. The Gingrich story is less the tale of a slow evolution toward steadiness and wisdom than the fable of the scorpion and the frog. The scorpion stung the frog as it hitched a ride across the river because it couldn’t help itself. Newt is intellectually frenetic by nature. He’ll be 105 and wildly contradicting himself from one day to the next as he indulges his latest enthusiasms.

There’s something tremendously invigorating about this. They called Lincoln “old” when he was in his 30s, a testament to his gravity. Newt feels young even though he’s about as old as Ronald Reagan when he ran in 1980. If Franklin Roosevelt was like a bottle of champagne, according to Winston Churchill, Gingrich is like a snort of helium.

His volatility makes it impossible to make any statement about him as a general-election candidate with assurance. Will he enthuse the Republican base? Yes, right up to the moment he stops enthusing it with some jarring provocation. Will he beat President Obama in the debates? Yes, right up until he makes an ill-tempered comment that washes away all his impressive knowledge and brilliant formulations. Will he be the bipartisan healer, the partisan bomb-thrower, or the post-partisan big thinker? Yes, yes, and yes. 

All that is predictable about Newt is that he is unpredictable, and, irresistibly, an election that should be about President Obama and his record will become about the heat and light generated by his electric performance. That’s the way it was as speaker, too. Eventually, he wore out his welcome in epic fashion. Benjamin Franklin said any houseguest, like a fish, stinks after three days. With the public and his colleagues, Gingrich became the houseguest who would never leave.

More than a decade after he was cashiered as speaker, he’s back on the basis of his superlative handling of the debates. He is better informed and has more philosophical depth than any of his rivals. Despite all his meanderings through the years, he knows how to win over a conservative audience as well as anyone. The debates have held out the alluring promise of a New Newt. But beware: The Old Newt lurks.

— Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate

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