In a spate of national and state polls today, it is clear that Newt Gingrich is moving up. His RealClearPolitics average in national polling is up to 14.2 percent, well ahead of Texas Gov. Rick Perry. In Iowa he’s climbed into fourth place behind Mitt Romney, Herman Cain and Rep.Ron Paul (R-Tex.). His rise seems to be at the expense of both Perry and Cain.
Gingrich is the latest in the line of not-Romney candidates to get a tryout by the voters. Yet it’s not clear that he has either the organization or the appeal in the early states to displace Cain, and his rise will increase the scrutiny of him in three areas.
For starters, conservatives looking for ideological purity will be disappointed. Gingrich has supported the individual mandate and cap and trade. He vouched for Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court. At various times, he supported creating the Department of Education, ethanol subsidies and Medicare Part D. And let’s not forget his counterproductive and false attack on Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan as conservative social engineering. In short, it’s not like his record is so much more conservative than Mitt Romney’s.
The other “record” problem for Gingrich is his leadership experience. Rich Lowry in May wrote: “When he was Speaker of the House, he alienated his colleagues (some of whom roll their eyes at the mere mention of his name) and dragged himself, his family, and his party through a psychodrama. If he were to replicate that performance in the White House, it’d be a formula for a LBJ- or Nixon-style meltdown.” Gingrich got rolled by President Bill Clinton on the budget fights, and by the time he left office, he was the focus of conservative House members’ ire. It’s hard to recall a conservative congressional leader that did more damage to his own side.
And then there is Gingrich, personally. The ethics charge, the serial wives and his own infidelities. He wraps it all in a gloss of high-minded rectitude. (The latest is his announcement that God forgave him for all these misdeeds.) He now sees fit to lecture Herman Cain about taking seriously allegations of sexual impropriety. If social conservatives want a man of character, it’s far form clear that Gingrich qualifies.
But there’s another Gingrich personality problem. He’s an egomanic and a bit of a jerk. Lowry again:
At the CNBC debate on the economy, Gingrich eyed Maria Bartiromo the way Franklin Roosevelt might have looked at Admiral Yamamoto, had the Japanese commander been selected to moderate a foreign-policy debate shortly after Pearl Harbor. A lawyer argues the law when he doesn’t have the facts on his side, and vice versa; Gingrich litigates the debate question even when he has a perfectly suitable answer.
His exchange with Bartiromo on health care was utterly characteristic. She asked all the candidates for a 30-second summary of how they would replace Obamacare. A couple of them did, and when she got to Gingrich he objected to the “absurd question,” complaining that no one could meaningfully discuss health care in 30 seconds. The two of them bickered unpleasantly about the appropriateness of the question for more than a minute — before Newt gave in and delivered a crisp response hitting on the highlights of his thoughts on health care.
The whole idea that anyone in the media should query him about his past is illegitimate in his eyes. His sense of moral superiority when it comes to the press is so great that he considers virtually every question to be a gotcha.
In short, Gingrich isn’t exactly the conservative dreamboat the right has been pining for. Just as his dexterity in debates has given him a lift, the penchant for gaffes places him in constant peril. He’s better informed than Perry and Cain and actually knows something about foreign affairs, but the idea that he is the solution to the ideologically erratic Romney is, well, absurd. That said, for those now embarrassed to vote for Cain or Perry, Gingrich may be a more acceptable choice, so long as he doesn’t once again blow himself up.