The Newt Gingrich presidential campaign team finally found someone to buy their spin -- Chris Cillizza wrote up the case for Newt yesterday, concluding that Newt was "underrated" as a contender and that "simply writing the former Speaker off is a major mistake."
Underrated is always an easy out, but fortunately we have two new pundit rankings this week, so we can judge exactly how Newt is rated. National Journal has him as their #7 prospect, while David S. Bernstein has him 12th, up from 19th last month. Since I'd say that NJ is closer to representing conventional wisdom than my brother is (sorry, David), I'll go with that 7th spot as where he's rated. Does Cillizza really think that he should be significantly higher than that?
On the plus side, as Cillizza says, Gingrich was big in the 1990s. Well, that's something.
On the down side...well, outside of that no one gets presidential nominations despite having achieved nothing higher than the House of Representatives, and outside of Newt's continuing lack of popularity, and that he was pretty much chased from office because he was terrible at being Speaker, and then there's the messy personal life...put that all aside, and you're left with: he was big in the 1990s. Which is, you know, a long time ago.
You know, there was a point at which it was generally considered to be a big advantage to seek the presidency while not holding office: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Walter Mondale all won nominations that way. Since then, however, there hasn't been one: Obama, Kerry, Gore, Clinton, Dukakis, McCain, W., Dole, and George H.W. Bush were all in elective office when they won their nominations, as was McGovern, earlier. Moving back to pre-reform times, Richard Nixon had been out of office for eight years in 1968, which I guess is the modern record.
Looking back to ancient history...the immortal John W. Davis, he of the 103 ballot victory in 1924, had been a Member of the House from 1911-1913, but had then served as Solicitor General (1913-1918) and Ambassador to Great Britain (1918-1921). So he was a decade removed from elective office, but only a few years out of government. Fun John W. Davis fact (assuming that wikipedia is correct) I did not know: he appeared for the pro-segregation side before the Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education, on behalf of South Carolina. Nice legacy, Mr. Davis!
The record holder, for what it's worth, seems to be William Jennings Bryan, who had been out of office 13+ years by the time he was last nominated in 1908. Unless, of course, you count "Democratic nominee for president" as an office, in which case he still had an eight year gap from 1900 to 1908. There's also Horace Greeley, who before his 1872 nomination had been a Member of the House for a few months in 1848-1849, but his claim to the nomination wasn't really based on that service, presumably.
Newt Gingrich left office in disgrace in January, 1999. So he'd be basically challenging the all-time record, depending on how you count these things, if the Republicans nominated him for president in 2012.
Of course, none of these things make it impossible for him to win, I suppose, but underrated? No way. I'll stick to what I said before: he's Sarah Palin without enthusiastic supporters but with a marital record worse than John Edwards.