Monday, February 28, 2011

Tom P. Baxter, Presidential Candidate?

It is true, as Jeff Zeleny reported in the Sunday NYT, that one of Newt Gingrich's problems as a presidential candidate is his personal history.

However, the idea that absent his divorces Newt would be a strong candidate is just silly. First of all, Newt's severe lack of popularity predates his second divorce and remarriage; he was terribly unpopular during most of his years as Speaker. So we're talking about someone who has been out of office for over a decade and wasn't popular nationally when he was in office. Not to mention that capturing a presidential nomination without rising about the House hasn't been done in over a century, anyway.

But second, and probably more to the point -- Newt Gingrich is a snake-oil salesman, and he was fully exposed during his run as Speaker. It's possible that Zeleny is correct that "Rival Republicans marvel at his deep well of ideas, his innate intellect and his knowledge of government," but unlikely that those marveling Republicans would include those who served with him in the House in 1995-1998. That's among the reasons they were prepared to toss him out when he saw the jig was up and quit.

Zeleny's story is a good example of the Gingrich style. There's a lot of overheated, general-purpose rhetoric: "The president is replacing the rule of law with the rule of Obama." "Does [the GOP] want to be a party prepared to replace the failed institutions and move to a very bold new approach?" Newt is always on the side of revolutionary change, bold new approaches, breaking through politics-as-usual. And, as always, Newt is convinced that the crisis is here, right now; Zeleny has Newt telling him that 2012 is going to be an election like 1860 and 1932 -- but I'd be shocked if Newt hasn't said that about every election since he was old enough to read the newspapers.

Meanwhile, the only substantive quotation in the article is gibberish: speaking of religion, Newt says that "To a surprising degree, we are in a situation similar to Poland’s in 1979...In America, religious belief is being challenged by a cultural elite trying to create a secularized America, in which God is driven out of public life." The second part, about the cultural elite and driving out God is fairly normal Christian conservative rhetoric. Newt's special part is the first part: that USA 2011 is just like Poland in 1979. The Newt touch is to add the veneer of Serious Intellectual Heft to whatever he's saying. Often, it's with citations to some trendy book he's adopted; here, it's a fatuous historical analogy. As usual, the "analysis" doesn't bear more than a second's thought (Poland? In 1979? How? Has the US been a Soviet client for thirty years, and we haven't noticed it?). It's not supposed to; the purpose of these things is to remind everyone, or at least the gullible, that Newt is an "ideas man."

As a presidential candidate, Newt is...well, he's less of a joke than Donald Trump, but more of a joke than Sarah Palin has been (unlike Newt, she has a solid, enthusiastic faction devoted to her). I was pretty unkind to reporters who take him seriously here, and I don't see any reason to change that opinion. Oh, and the worst thing about Zeleny's story? How about his reference to the "books, movies and other mementos that help finance the operations of Mr. Gingrich’s array of business enterprises." Huh? Newt Gingrich is entitled, as anyone else is, to sell a bunch of crap to dupes and cash in on his fame and government service, but "help finance the operations...?" Sheesh. I was at the county fair once and bought food on a stick for an outrageous price; I thought they were making a profit, but I guess they were just helping to finance the operations of their array of business enterprises.

Update: forgot to include a link to Andrew Sullivan's takedown of Newt's dishonest babbling in reaction to the Obama/Holder DOMA position. Sullivan calls Newt "intellectually vapid," which is exactly right, and really it's just sad that there are reporters who keep falling for the act.


  1. I wish I remembered the Tom P. Baxter episode better. I understand the reference, but it just makes me want to see the original clip.

  2. I don't like Newt Gingrich either as a conservative but you might as well admit that you are anything but an objective observer.

    You write the following at the link you provided:

    "I suppose there are also some rubes in the press corps who somehow or another are able to see through the Sage of Wasilla's ordinary hockey mom pose"

    So if one becomes wealthy, that person is no longer able to present themselves as someone who came from less fortunate economic circumstances? Didn't Obama make the same argument about how he could relate to middle-class families when he was going to overpriced third-tier Occidental College?

  3. I agree with most of what you say about Gingrich, but isn't it a little unfair to make the "hasn't risen above the House" argument?

    The Speaker of the House isn't just another congressman; it's a major power position, third in the line of succession. It seems to me that Gingrich is a credible candidate on those grounds, just like Nancy Pelosi or Tip O'Neill would be.

  4. @ R. John -

    I think this is an interesting question. Can't think of a Speaker who was nominated other than Henry Clay, and he served as Senator and SecState after his Speakership.

    Dick Gephardt wasn't in leadership yet when he lost in 1998, and had left as minority leader before his 2004 campaign. And of course, he never served as Speaker.

  5. In addition to Gingrich's messy personal life, and having never served in the Senate or as governor, and his unpopular record as Speaker, and his "ideas", he's also been around a long, long time. I suspect he'll run into the same kind of problems Chris Dodd ran into in 2008 on the Democratic side: why are your running for president, other than it's something on your bucket list?

  6. James Polk is the only former Speaker in history to become president, though he also had a (two-year) governorship under his belt.

    Besides Henry Clay, the only other former Speaker ever nominated by a major party was (consulting Wikipedia) James Blaine in 1884. Both men were also former Senators and Secretaries of State.

  7. >I suspect he'll run into the same kind of problems Chris Dodd ran into in 2008 on the Democratic side: why are your running for president, other than it's something on your bucket list?

    Perhaps, but it's worth pointing out that the GOP, unlike the Dems, has a recent tradition of nominating old guys: Reagan, Dole, McCain.


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