Michael Gerson
Opinion writer January 23, 2012

Some persistence is merely doggedness. Newt Gingrich’s persistence is a form of confidence — the firm belief that, given enough time and enough debates, his skills will prevail. He knows how to probe an opponent’s weakness, how to humiliate a journalist, how to employ an applause line and how to parry an uncomfortable question. The anti-Romneys who came before him were chosen more or less at random. Gingrich has earned his surge that produced a 13-point victory in South Carolina on Saturday.

Yet Gingrich is more than a performer. He is the GOP’s chief diagnostician, specializing in the vivid explanation of public challenges. Other candidates struggle to recall three points on a 3-by-5 card. Gingrich struggles to suppress the dissertation that might emerge at any moment. The ability to think in public is a rare political gift — more common in Britain than in America. Bill Clinton would shine during prime minister’s question time. So would Gingrich.

Michael Gerson is a nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Post. View Archive

But Gingrich regularly gets into trouble when moving from analysis to prescription. Nearly every problem that crosses the threshold of his attention becomes historically urgent, requiring a fundamental solution. This is the reason for his most revealing verbal habit. Systems are “fundamentally broken” and require “fundamental change.” Opposing views are “fundamentally a lie” and “fundamentally alien to American tradition.” Only the biggest ideas are sufficient to his self-regard.

So Gingrich diagnoses the genuine threat of terrorism and radical Islam. Then he calls for a federal law against sharia, which would address a nonexistent crisis while stigmatizing an entire faith.

He makes a strong case for early work experience in low-income communities. Then he goes further to dismiss child labor laws as “truly stupid” and urges the employment of students as assistant janitors.

Gingrich acknowledges the problem of climate change — or at least he once did. But he proposed to combat it through geoengineering — the risky manipulation of the planet’s environment by pumping nitrogen into the oceans or deflecting the sun’s rays with vast mirrors.

Gingrich’s proposals for fundamental change are generally dismissed as Newt being Newt — the hits and misses of a fertile mind. But his misses are frequent, revealing a pattern of poor judgment. And eccentricities in a candidate become troubling when considered in a president.

The former speaker’s challenge to judicial supremacy is a case in point. As usual, Gingrich diagnoses a real problem. Judges are perfectly capable of serious overreach. They have sometimes encroached on legislative functions or imposed an intolerant theology of public secularism.

Also as usual, Gingrich presses several steps too far in both rhetoric and policy. Judicial activists are “grotesquely dictatorial” and “radically anti-American.” They should be subpoenaed by Congress and compelled by marshals to testify. The president should have the right to ignore their rulings and abolish circuit courts entirely.

Gingrich cites the example of Thomas Jefferson, who eliminated a number of circuit courts created by John Adams during the last days of his administration. It is a poorly chosen precedent. Jefferson was undoing his predecessor’s executive power grab, not targeting specific judges who made undesirable decisions. If President Gingrich simply eliminated, say, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, it would leave a large portion of the country unserved by a federal appeals court. If he subsequently filled the vacancies, it would undermine the constitutional principle of life tenure. As former attorney general Michael Mukasey has argued, America would become a “banana republic, in which administrations would become regimes, and each regime would feel it perfectly appropriate to disregard decisions by courts staffed by previous regimes.”

When Gingrich was called out by conservative legal scholars on the radical implications of his proposal, his response was both typical and alarming. He doubled down. After all, he said, “I taught a short course in this at the University of Georgia Law School.” And this: “I would suggest to you, actually as a historian, I may understand this better than lawyers.”

This is not just a presidential candidate using a strident applause line. This is a presidential candidate promising a constitutional crisis, then arrogantly dismissing the criticism of his recklessness.

Currently many conservatives are exercising not just their franchise but their imaginations. They picture a debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, and they yawn. They envision Gingrich going after the president, the media and the fundamental failures of liberalism — and their pulses race.

But Republicans need to imagine just a little further — electing a president with no history of prudence.

michaelgerson@washpost.com