For over a year, I've been bullish about Newt Gingrich's presidential candidacy. Friends and fellow pundits mocked my insistence that the former House speaker be taken seriously, that he had a real chance of winning the GOP nomination.
Mr. Gingrich's personal story — his multiple marriages, the Tiffany's spending — is too problematic, they said. The former speaker is flinty, not particularly organized or well-funded, and he long ago passed his political sell-by date: a 1990s curio seeking not so much the White House as attention and relevance.
These failings may ultimately doom Mr. Gingrich's bid for the Republican nomination. But two factors make him unique in this 2012 GOP field: He's the smartest of the bunch, and he's proven he knows how to win in national politics.
I interviewed Mr. Gingrich in summer 2010. At the time, the former Georgia congressman who led his party to victory in the 1994 Republican Revolution was still contemplating a White House run. His publicist and I agreed we'd dedicate half the interview to his then-new book, "To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine," and the other half to discussing contemporary politics and his presidential ambitions.
When the interview ended, Mr. Gingrich flipped the script and asked me a question: Did I like his book? Caught off guard, I responded truthfully.
I told him I thought his substantial policy arguments were muddied by diversionary, red-meat sections dedicated to topics like the ACORN scandal. Put another way: I liked the sections where he delivered on the title's promise (how to save America) but thought he wasted too much space attacking conservative bogeymen (secular socialists). "If you run for president, what separates you from other contenders is that you can knowledgeably debate the president on any subject," I said.
Philosophically, I disagree with most of Mr. Gingrich's policy prescriptions. He's flip-flopped on issues ranging from the individual health care mandate (he once promoted the idea) to how to handle the Libyan revolution. I wonder if he has the discipline to convert his recent surge in the polls into a legitimate campaign strategy and field organization necessary to win the nomination. Given his precipitous fall from the speakership in four short years, I'm not sure what kind of leader he'd make were he to ever sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.
But this much I do know about Mr. Gingrich, the Republicans' one-man walking, talking think tank: Whether in Lincoln-Douglas style or the traditional format, he will be able to conduct a serious debate about America's future because he's the only GOP contender who has spent the past three decades actually pondering the problems, large and small, facing the country. A candidate who cites Chile's model as a possible alternative to America's current Social Security system is no poll-tested wind-up toy.
For all the dismissive talk about the political weaknesses of the 2012 GOP contenders, the bigger problem is their cookie-tin-depth policy knowledge. Mitt Romney is a smart guy, but every answer he gives is a calculated hedge. Rick Perry is a vapid platitude machine. Michele Bachmann believes belief itself is a fair substitute for science or empirics. Herman Cain responds to most non-tax-reform questions by promising to convene top experts to advise him, effectively admitting he has no idea what he's talking about.
The modern Republican Party has been criticized as anti-intellectual. Democratic strategist Paul Begala calls the GOP the "Stupid Party." Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker (no liberal, she) laments the party's "Palinization" — the steady replacement of serious policy arguments with "know-nothing" phrases and religious mantra.
Mr. Gingrich offers a panacea. He understands policy and history. He doesn't need to fumble around for a consultant's note cards to provide a cogent response. He reads. At a recent debate, he dared to give a reasoned and reasonable answer about illegal immigration, a departure so radical from the usual Republican sound bites that the pundits immediately decided the former speaker had committed nuance-assisted political suicide.
Is the man who in 1994 led Capitol Hill Republicans out of four decades in the minority wilderness perfect? Nope, and he's no Stephen Douglas, either. But then again, Barack Obama is no Abraham Lincoln.
Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. Email: email@example.com.