This piece is part of an On Leadership roundtable on Newt Gingrich’s leadership style.
Like the folks in Whoville, I wait eagerly for Christmas and for the emergence of a completely new Republican presidential candidate—one with both intelligence and heart, one with true leadership capacity, and one that resembles the fiscally conservative party of old that also favored a compassionate government.
I was shocked when the current crop was introduced at the Michigan debate a few weeks ago and an unexpected roar went up from the audience for Newt Gingrich. Clearly, as the old Obama saying went, Newt’s supporters were “fired up and ready to go.”
Mitt Romney, the frontrunner at that point, may have been at his best, but Newt was truly at the top of his game. And soon afterward, Gingrich and Romney were locked in a dead heat.
How on Earth did this happen? Newt’s entire staff quit, and he spent months in a swamp of carelessness with no ground game, no organizers, no money and no name on the ballot in the Missouri primary. And let us not forget the nasty divorce from the wife with cancer, the high-flying account at Tiffany and his lobbying shenanigans.
But, on the other hand, this hiatus from winner status also meant he avoided the moguls and black ice of being at the head of the pack. Now our “Gingrinch” is skiing swiftly toward Whoville and grabbing the presents from under the trees, smiling along the way as only New York Times columnist Gail Collins can describe him: “practically levitating with [his] own sense of personal wonderfulness.”
Don’t underestimate Gingrich. Early on, I watched him function smoothly and supportively as the under-Grinch, making the moderators of that Michigan debate look uncaring for even thinking he could answer a question about his health care plan in 30 seconds. Then he swept aside Republican doctrine by suggesting a more humane approach to immigration policy. The largesse never lasts, though. He recently suggested hiring poverty-stricken children as school janitors. America, is this really the man you want leading the free world?
A University of Iowa poll released Monday shows Gingrich ahead by 30 percent among those likely to attend the Iowa caucuses. Romney trails with 20 percent and Ron Paul has 11 percent. Apparently, Iowans (by a 2-to-1 ratio) think that Gingrich is the most empathetic candidate and the one who is best prepared to be our commander in chief. Yikes.
I worry about this trend toward Gingrich as our Republican leader. He is filled with downsides, and yet he’s still standing because he is also filled with ideas—even if they often cancel each other out.
And I worry because I, too, grew up in Georgia, and I saw how the smooth Southern political and corporate guys were continually underestimated, and how they laughed as they outsmarted the so-called Eastern elites.
The real Grinch may have stolen the Christmas presents in Whoville, but he did not kill the spirit of the town, whose residents held hands, sang and celebrated anyway. America had better hold on tight as well, lest we lose the spirit of greatness and compassion that built this country. I can only hope that the common wisdom is true: The early leader in a presidential year is usually not the nominee.
So knock yourself out, Gingrinch. At the end of the day, I suspect Republicans will wake up and see inside the package they are about to unwrap. And it ain’t pretty.