Newt Gingrich has a voluminous history of misdeeds as a public figure. But since he is now emerging as the consensus alternative to Mitt Romney, we should pause to appreciate how he is succeeding where others have failed in auditioning for that role.
I write this not as a Newt Gingrich fan, but in grudging admission that despite the mistakes he has made, his opponents have done worse.
On Libya, Newt made one of his most blatant reversals, saying first that the United States should intervene militarily on behalf of the rebels before later declaring that he would not have intervened after the president did just that. What did Newt NOT do? Display complete unfamiliarity with President Obama’s position and subsequent action, taking several minutes in an interview to sort through the “things twirling around his head” (Herman Cain).
On same-sex marriage, Newt has stayed fairly mum on the campaign trail (his unanimous support of a prohibitive constitutional amendment notwithstanding). What did Newt NOT do? Attempt to gin up Iowa evangelicals with a comically absurd diatribe contrasting napkins with paper towels (Rick Santorum).
On healthcare, Gingrich’s most flat-footed debate moment came as Romney challenged him to deny that he had ever supported an individual insurance mandate. However, in a subsequent debate he notably refused to distill the issue down to a 30-second sound bite, rattling off a laundry list of potential approaches highlighting the virtue and necessity of public-private partnerships. What did Newt NOT do? Pander to the libertarian populist wing of the party with “let-him-die” do-nothing memes (Ron Paul).
On immigration, Gingrich claimed he would “take the heat” for refusing to support deportation of longstanding undocumented residents, offering a path to legality for those sufficiently demonstrating ingratiation into their adopted communities. What did Newt NOT do? Suggest construction of an electrified border fence labeled “It Can Kill You” (Cain, again) or declare no responsibility to provide care or assistance to children of undocumented arrivals (Michele Bachmann).
These examples do not even touch upon his past positions on climate change and education reform—both issues on which he’s espoused downright liberal positions. In none of these areas has Gingrich advocated a do-nothing approach to governance, or suggested that the role of Washington is to be as “inconsequential as possible” (Rick Perry). Say what one will about his ideas, Gingrich displays a conservatism that is a mindset for problem-solving rather than an excuse for inaction.
Gingrich is still a condescending, unlikable blowhard and an odious exemplar of all that’s wrong with modern Washington. Come on, Freddie Mac didn’t pay $350k for his skills as an historian (such a price tag would accompany better than the likes of Newt’s bibliography—this isn’t David McCullough territory).
Nevertheless, given the low bar set by his fellow candidates it should come as no surprise that Gingrich has been able to surpass it. In Mitt vs. Newt, Republicans are looking at a top-two matchup between two sets of ideas. “Do nothing” is embodied by the buffoonery of their competitors, and that isn’t an option in 2012.