Newt Gingrich is brilliant, mercurial, temperamental, eloquent, feisty, occasionally nasty, haughty, successful, acerbic, undisciplined, unpredictable and immensely talented. He clearly exceeds in originality all other candidates in this year’s election, and most presidents of the last century. He has an idea for every issue, and sometimes three or four, and a solution to every problem. He is assumed leadership positions wherever he has been and quickly flamed out after initial successes. Where have we seen this dynamic before ? In baseball.
Newt Gingrich is the Billy Martin of politics.
Billy Martin managed five teams and was successful with each one, most famously with the Yankees from whom he was fired five times. That itself must be a record, and explicit evidence of his hard-driving personality. He brought teams from baseball oblivion to the mountaintop, winning division titles with Minnesota and Detroit, a world championship with the Yankees, and taking Texas from last place to second-place in one season. But he never lasted long in any one job. His peers admired and despised him, his bosses hired and loathed him, and those who knew him best seemed to like him the least.
The similarities are uncanny. Like Martin in baseball, Newt took the Republicans from a position of permanent inferiority in Congress to majority status – and then within a relatively short time offended his supporters and resigned. He took a bad team and made them play well – but could not sustain it for more than several seasons (i.e., two terms). Like Martin, Gingrich is a master manipulator of talent and the press, a strategist par excellence who is always seeing three or four moves ahead of the opposition.
Like Martin, Newt has a healthy sense of paranoia and a narrative of personal struggle and vindication. Like Martin, Newt is averse to admitting mistakes – except when such admissions are politically advantageous – and always feels himself embattled and encircled by the establishment. Like Martin, Newt easily re-invents himself, from job to job, position to position, with his record of immediate success. Like Martin, Newt found himself accused of ethics violations that led to difficulties with his employers. Like Martin, Newt has had serial affairs, although Martin’s wives numbered four in total, one more than the nuptials of Newt.
As such, Newt presents such a clear contrast to Mitt Romney that it is no wonder they are so frequently at odds, and with such vehemence. Romney is almost preternaturally calm and composed, almost always unruffled, and very controlled and deliberate. Newt is the anti-Romney – frequently ruffled, often scruffy in appearance, and constantly agitated about something. Romney is focused on marketing (himself), whereas Newt appears almost uninterested in marketing, preferring the generation of excitement and exhilaration to the details of campaigning (like getting on the ballot in Virginia and Missouri). And Newt generated enthusiasm, similar to that of Ron Paul supporters but much more grounded in reality.
It is Newt’s volatility that endears him to so many – at least at first – and makes him such a compelling contrast to Barack Obama. He is always on the edge, always ready for a good scrum, always ready with a verbal and intellectual comeback to any challenge. There is no question Newt can’t answer, no policy matter he hasn’t thought through, and no confrontation that he will duck. Many salivate at the prospect of Newt debating Obama, which will not only be exciting television, but will so easily distress the thin-skinned Obama. Newt without a note is more articulate than Obama with three Teleprompters. So that would be fun.
But is that what the presidency is supposed to be ? Presidents are never called on to debate anything, so they are meaningless as a measure of presidential performance. And as indicia of presidential success they are even less significant. They are reality TV – in the case of Republicans, a good way for the electorate to familiarize itself with them, even as it seems they are locked in a circular firing squad. (Come next fall, no one will remember or care about anything said in a January debate, and the election will more turn on some as yet unknown factor.) Newt’s strength as a debater is critical to his nominating chances but ultimately inconsequential should he become the president.
Newt’s capacity as an idea-man makes his candidacy so intriguing. Bright thinkers can produce an idea per minute, but many of them half-baked, some dangerous, and still others immensely profound. The last professor type who occupied the White House was Woodrow Wilson, and his musings – on economic policy and foreign affairs – shape America until today, and in a largely negative way. It was Wilson who laid the foundation for the modern welfare state (that was later expanded by FDR and LBJ) and for the US’s role as the world’s policeman. Often, professors are not sensitive to the real-world effects, consequences, or reactions to their suggestions, and simply develop a new idea to replace the previous failure. Thought, like talk, is often cheap when one is in an inconsequential role in an ivory tower, but hazardous when the real world with its real people intrudes on the speculations.
Many of America’s problems are so intractable that only out-of-the-box solutions should be considered. The unfunded liabilities of all the government welfare programs – Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and now Obamacare (may the Supreme Court overturn it) – run into the tens of trillions of dollars. America’s debt – now sixteen trillion dollars and growing (that’s $16,000,000,000,000.00) simply cannot be satisfied conventionally. Obama’s old idea of “tax the rich” – class warfare that depends for its success on two groups, the unintelligent and the recipient of handouts – is not only hackneyed and tired but also an obvious failure. Forget raising the rates on the rich: if Obama confiscated all the assets of every billionaire in the country, it would underwrite his budget for approximately two months – and then it would be gone, along with his class warfare argument.
Newt can make these arguments colorfully and compellingly. But will he flame out, as did Billy Martin again and again ? Will he offend his peers, co-workers and contemporaries even during the primary season ? He seems already to have inspired much opposition from Republicans with a personal animus towards him, an enmity that Romney never engenders even in his opponents.
A Newt Gingrich presidency would be a wild ride. He has already done an immense public service by pointing out the farce of the “peace process” and the vapidity of the Palestinian claims – the “invented people” remark from which he, to his credit, has not backtracked and has even reiterated.
If he is true to the Billy Martin form, Newt will win this election and then be booted out after one term. The difference – and this of course is critical – is that Martin had only one employer with a vote. Newt has to appeal to tens of millions of employers, who will either embrace or reject his voluble, out-sized personality.