Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.
February 12, 2012
One of my favorite activities this primary season is to read the seemingly endless analyses of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The profiles run the gamut from glowing to scathing; just about every Washington pundit has a strong opinion of "Mr. Speaker." Yet, most of the talking heads have not worked with the man or known him very well.
I have worked with Newt, consider him a friend, but also understand the eccentricities of this fascinating leader. (I am also Maryland chairman of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign.)
Our relationship dates to the heady days of 1993-94. Newt was then House minority whip, tasked with the goal of electing a House majority in the 1994 midterm elections. I, along with many of my future colleagues, became the beneficiary of Newt's fundraising and political acumen.
Newt's speakership was successful but stormy. The "Contract With America," welfare reform, and four years of federal balanced budgets mixed with an autocratic style, ethics issues, and the propensity to be a lightning rod — even when one was not required. After his resignation from Congress, we maintained a cordial relationship through periodic discussions and encounters at public events. He was still the most interesting pundit in American politics, but he generated a polarization and gender gap that have followed him to the present.
So, what about the guy? What makes him tick? And why all the vitriol from former colleagues?
On the upside, Newt is genuinely what he appears to be: a big thinker of big ideas generated by a big brain. He is the most learned politician of this generation. He is a historian forever intrigued by the future. (Many of his "suggested reading" items during my congressional tenure were futuristic thinkers such as Alvin Toffler.)
These attributes provide Newt a leg up when debate questions swerve into space colonies and formulas for world peace. Indeed, more complex questions are generally beneficial to Newt, as they provide an opportunity to demonstrate his considerable intellect and grasp of historical context.
Newt has an answer for any big question. The substance of the answer is always well articulated; the question of affordability, not so much. And therein begins a series of problematic attributes that follow Newt the candidate, and have surrounded Newt the politician, for years.
Real questions about electability will not go away. He has never won a general election larger than a Georgia congressional district. His personal history is far from role-model material, and many of our former colleagues have made it their business to derail his candidacy. Some have taken the time to follow Newt around the country in the interest of "setting the record straight." Such actions can also be labeled "getting even." This abuse directed to a former speaker is a function of unhealed wounds from past political clashes. There are many such wounds, and most emanate from his years as House speaker. Periodic displays of intellectual intolerance (Newt is the last guy to suffer fools) and a well-documented hypersensitivity to criticism (recall his post-Nevada caucus press conference) complete the explanation as to why his gender gap persists, and why the Obama camp is not especially fearful of a Gingrich nomination.
In their search for appropriate context, some commentators have compared the intellect, ego and self-absorption of Newt to former President Bill Clinton. The theory being that the two so dislike each other because they are so similar. This notion holds in many respects, particularly in regard to hyper-ambition. Indeed, a ruthless brand of ambition is a shared characteristic of both men. But the comparison fails on the movement front.
You see, Bill Clinton was not so much concerned with leading a political movement or partisan realignment; the substance of an issue was always less important than getting the deal done. Such is the modus operandi for practitioners of triangulation politics; they are unconcerned with consistency and philosophical niceties.
This "third way" holds little appeal for Newt Gingrich, however; he envisions himself the "heir to Reagan" and the titular head of the modern conservative movement. This is a big goal befitting a big ambition. One problem, though: There sure are a lot of conservatives out to do him in.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around," a book about national politics. His email is email@example.com.
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