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Post Leadership
Posted at 03:21 PM ET, 01/22/2012

Does Newt Gingrich’s S.C. win show we’re looking for a mean leader?


Newt Gingrich upended the Republican presidential race on Saturday, winning the primary in South Carolina by 12 points . (John W. Adkisson - GETTY IMAGES)
Of all the qualities people look for in their leaders, here’s one you don’t hear very often: Mean. Filled with integrity? Yes. Visionary? Certainly. Magnanimous? Sure. But mean? Not one that comes up that frequently.

This, of course, was the response one voter gave to Post reporters for why he voted for Newt Gingrich in Saturday’s primary in South Carolina, which the former speaker won by 12 points, thereby upending the Republican race. “I think we’ve reached a point where we need someone who’s mean,” an 85-year-old Harold Wade said in Sullivan’s Island, S.C.

Others weren’t so candid, but said they were “looking for a good fight” or wanted someone who could “handle” Obama. And two-thirds of voters in surveys at South Carolina polling stations said the debates, in which the former Speaker tore into moderators, launched into sharp exchanges with his opponents and taunted Romney for not releasing his tax returns, played an important role in their decision.

Yes, the man who said he was “committed to running a positive” campaign but changed his tune following his loss in Iowa is now more known for his pugnacious debate style and his willingness to go negative than any semblance of a positive campaign. Since Iowa, he has lashed into his competitors, the media and President Obama with a swaggering zeal.

This about-face doesn’t appear to bother many voters of South Carolina. Nor, it seems, does Gingrich’s efforts to run a campaign that trumpets fear. In Thursday’s debate, Gingrich called President Obama “the most dangerous president of our lifetime, and if he is reelected, after the disaster he has been, the level of radicalism of his second term will be truly frightening.” He repeated a similar phrase in his victory speech Saturday night.

Them’s fightin’ words, as we say in the South. But they’re also words designed to strike fear in the hearts of voters.  That combination of gutsy combativeness and fear-inducing language may help Gingrich do well in the GOP primary. But how well it will play in a general election among voters exhausted by the division and dysfunction in Washington is another question.

Even if the country is more jaded after the past few years and indeed, as Sarah Palin has said, is getting past “that hopey, changey stuff,” I still think your average voter wouldn’t put “mean” on their list of leadership qualities. They expect a certain level of consistency in their leaders. And most people still want leaders who talk more about their vision for a brighter tomorrow—albeit grounded in the realities of our world—than their disgust and fright about the state of things today.

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By  |  03:21 PM ET, 01/22/2012

 
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