The Republicans are turning their lonely eyes to yet another Romney replacement, and this week’s choice is Newt Gingrich. Will his boomlet have more staying power than the other substitutes? To answer that question, I went back to college — at least in my fading memory. I had a Chinese history final exam in which there was one question. It read, making allowances for the many years, “Mao was a great revolutionary leader, but is he a great leader of a government? Discuss the different leadership skills necessary for both. What is necessary to make the transition from revolution to governing successfully?” Not to trivialize Mao or to compare Newt to a Communist, but that essay question is a very useful one to ponder when it comes to Newt’s electoral prospects and to considering what kind of president he’d make.
Newt, of course, is the Republican revolutionary who went from bomb-throwing back-bencher to leader of the extraordinary ‘94 overthrow of Democratic congressional hegemony, to the foil for President Clinton, to the disgraced former leader. What the next chapter holds is largely up to how Newt would answer the long-ago essay question. What has he learned about the difference between overthrowing a government and running it? Has he learned the difference between an idea that inspires a cadre and an idea that can inform a legislature?
There are conflicting signs. Newt did attack the Paul Ryan Medicare reform plan as being an impractical overreach, which enraged the Tea Party freshmen members who would have been Newt’s foot-soldiers 30 years ago (as it would have enraged the young Newt Gingrich). This suggests a certain new-found pragmatism, or it could simply have been envy: “How dare this young pup be getting credit for being the House intellectual? That’s my job.” And the former speaker has shown an eagerness to move away from orthodoxy on climate change — he says it is real and critical to mitigate — and health care. Perhaps this expansiveness is a sign of wisdom, or perhaps it is only a revolutionary’s pleasure in guerilla attacks on the establishment, wherever they reside.
Gingrich has probably studied Mao and knows his career path. One of the greatest revolutionaries, who set China back two generations and was one of the 20th Century’s worst tyrants. He might want to brush up on Mao’s little red book, a kind of Emily Post for revolutionaries. In it Mao says, “In this world, things are complicated and are decided by many factors. We should look at problems from many aspects, not just one.” Or another one, Gingrich may already know by heart: “…. Ideas turn into a material force which changes society and changes the world.”