Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) has been in the public eye for so long that it is easy to focus mostly on his flaws, which are well known: two messy divorces, an admission of adultery, extravagantly harsh and divisive rhetoric toward his opponents, a capacity to be childish, turmoil often in his wake.
As he begins a process that’s likely to lead to a 2012 presidential campaign, those liabilities will be in the forefront of evaluations of his chances of winning, as they should be.
But so, too, should his assets. The reality is that, by sheer force of intellect, energy and ambition, Gingrich has managed to stay at the top of public debate longer than almost any other contemporary member of the GOP.
For three decades, he has been a leader of Republicans. He started as a House backbencher roiling the party’s old guard in the 1980s. Once elected to the leadership, he guided the GOP in 1994 to its first House majority in 40 years. After a government shutdown that cost his party, he worked with President Bill Clinton to produce major changes in the welfare system and a balanced budget.
For a time, Gingrich was the face of the Republican Party, for better or worse. He survived a coup attempt by some of his lieutenants in 1997. He stepped down as speaker after his party suffered embarrassing losses in the 1998 midterm election and later left Congress. That could have ended his public career. But he resurrected himself and has become the CEO of an idea-generating mini-conglomerate that is uniquely his.
Gingrich’s move toward the 2012 race came Thursday, with the announcement that he will begin testing the waters for a potential campaign. That is a legal nicety, given federal election laws, that keeps him one step short of a candidacy. It will also allow him to conclude whatever business obligations he has from his various enterprises before formally announcing a bid.
But unless there is some hiccup in the next month or two, Gingrich will be in the forefront of the race for the GOP presidential nomination. His rivals do not underestimate his intelligence, creativity and political acumen, nor should they. He will be a major force in defining the direction of the party at a critical time in its history.
Gingrich’s attributes could take him a considerable distance in the race. He should be able to raise the money necessary to compete. He has a network of connections built over decades of grass-roots work. He has able advisers who have been loyal to him through his long career and who understand his weaknesses and his strengths.
He would excite Republican voters with his nonstop ideas and his knowledge of history. He would impress them with his big-picture view of the country and its politics. He would be fierce in debate, showing a command of the details of domestic programs and the world’s hot spots. He would have a global view shaped by his long experience and his conservative philosophy.
All this comes naturally to a politician with an insatiable appetite for information and an ability to process it and turn it into his own message. He understands the Republican base, though he has never been slavish in following its every desire. He understands presidential power, having jousted with Clinton in the mid-1990s enough to absorb what made the president such a worthy adversary.
Over his career, Gingrich has been a brilliant provocateur. It is his natural stance as a politician, owing to the battles that shaped his early years in the House. He has railed for so long against what he once called “the corrupt liberal welfare state” that he easily slips into overdrive in his condemnations of the left.
That may rouse the base, but it has rarely been a winning formula in a presidential campaign. His passions and exuberances are clear. More pertinent is whether Gingrich could show the steadiness, the calm and the maturity that voters seek in a president — both in his public words and comportment and in the way he would allow his campaign to be run.
His success depends on many factors, some beyond his control. But if there is a single quality likely to determine his fate, it is one that has sometimes been missing in his public career: discipline.
Does Gingrich have the discipline required of all successful presidential candidates — the discipline to keep his focus, to avoid meaningless fights, to ignore barbs from his critics, to show statesmanship? The answers will soon be forthcoming.