Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich campaigns in advance of the Iowa caucus on January 3. (Andrew Burton/GETTY IMAGES)

Anyone just returning after a long holiday break to news about Tuesday night’s Iowa caucuses is in for a surprise. Rick Santorum’s star — yes, Rick Santorum’s — has been rising. Ron Paul is in the Iowa polls’ top three, too. And Newt Gingrich, whose fortunes were peaking just before the holidays began, looks like he’s headed for lowly fourth place just weeks after it appeared he might run away with a win.

What happened? Santorum’s blue-collar bona fides have apparently won him new fans. Ron Paul’s movement picked up steam. And Newt Gingrich cried, didn’t run enough TV ads, and explained his position on climate control by calling himself an “amateur paleontologist.” (Guess being a historian wasn’t enough.) Most of all, however, Gingrich refused to go negative. He had promised to run a “respectful and constructive” campaign, and while many will argue whether he really did that or not, it appears to have hurt him more than it helped. “This will be the prevailing obituary for his campaign,” wrote The Fix blog. “He didn’t fight back and he wouldn’t go negative when it counted.”

Gingrich’s collapse raises a good leadership question: Is taking the high road always the best path? Most would instinctively say yes. We tend to like our leaders, at least on paper, to have good values, steadfast principles and the ability to keep their word. Strong moral compasses, that sort of thing.

But the high road is pretty hard to stay on, especially when it’s an unrealistic one in the first place — and sets you up for a failure no one else will face. Though he pledged to run a positive campaign, he also hasn’t hesitated to criticize his rivals. The same day he urged supporters to vote “for somebody who has been positive,” he told ABC News he plans to hit Mitt Romney every single day following the Iowa caucus. Calling one of his fellow candidates “bad for the country” isn’t negative in Gingrich’s book, but many people will understandably think it is. Tuesday morning, he even admitted to calling Romney a liar.

The problem for Gingrich? Most people assume they’ll see a certain amount of negativity from political leaders. They don’t want to see it go too far, as it often does, but promising a “positive” campaign in today’s world comes off as naïve and impractical. By setting up unrealistic expectations, Gingrich prevented himself from using critical ads when they were most needed, and from responding to the many attacks that were lobbed against him.

We want to support leaders who try to take the high road. But promising it and not keeping it is worse than simply being candid about doing your best to stay on it as much as possible. When principles are so unrealistic that they doom leaders to failure, the high-minded approach can have the opposite effect, and make them look needlessly low. 

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