He’s better than Romney, but can he win?
Newt Gingrich, like a pumpkin hurled from a slingshot, has catapulted into the lead in the GOP nomination race. He’s up in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida. Unlike Mitt Romney, he has no Enthusiasm Gap. The base is happy with Newt – or as happy as they’re going to get – and they’re begging to see him in a debate with Obama; Obama-Newt would be Mayweather-Pacquaio, with Newt as Mayweather.
The question the GOP establishment continues to ask, however, is whether Newt is electable. Now, predictions of electability have been dicey for the GOP establishment of late: Dole and McCain were both establishment candidates. And even the successful GOP establishment candidates like George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush implode on reaching power, handing over the reins to radicals like Clinton and Obama. So let’s take the GOP bigwig political forecasts with a grain of salt.
But the question itself is a good one. Newt has so much personal baggage, he’d be better off buying American Airlines entirely than trying to check it; he’s got a history of trying to outthink the room, even if his initial instincts are conservative. None of that will truly matter in a general election, because Newt is the Walking Dead of candidates: he’s been shot repeatedly, but won’t go down. He’s like Swiss cheese – another hole won’t matter. In fact, it will take a precisely calibrated character shot to take him down.
Unfortunately, this is where he’s vulnerable. He’s not all that vulnerable on the womanizing front – if Republicans can get over it, so too can independents. He is vulnerable on the personality front.
The liberal playbook for conservative candidates is simple: they’re either stupid, corrupt, or mean. The easier it is for liberals to mash conservatives into that mold, the easier it is for liberals to sink them.
“Stupid” is a tough charge to fight off. The left consistently attacked George W. Bush as a dummy – but believe it or not, it was tough for the left to label him dumb, since he had better grades and credentials than Al Gore and John Kerry. The left attacked Ronald Reagan as an “amiable dunce,” but the rest of America didn’t see it. When the label seems to fit, however unfairly, it’s deadly: see Perry, Rick, or Ford, Gerald.
Then there’s “corrupt.” Dick Cheney was supposedly corrupt – “Halliburton! Halliburton!” Nixon was corrupt, even if he didn’t do anything LBJ and JFK hadn’t done before him. Corruption is easier to overcome than stupidity as a label, because the burden of proof seems to lie with those charging corruption. That’s why the charge stuck with Nixon but didn’t really stick with Cheney.
Finally, there’s “mean.” According to the left, every Republican, by nature, is mean, cruel, rapacious, callous, and nasty. This is the easiest charge to combat, because all you have to do is not seem arrogant or uncaring.
And this is Newt Gingrich’s problem. Newt’s professorial manner is both his blessing and his curse. It’s a blessing because we want somebody to school Obama, and Newt can do it. It’s a curse because we don’t tend to like politicians who talk down to us. The last president before Obama who talked down to us on a routine basis was FDR, and that’s only because he played Freudian father figure. Nobody likes a pedant, and Newt is above all a pedant.
Newt may be able to get away with it because the country needs an adult in the room, and Obama is even worse than a normal pedant: he’s a pedantic, childish know-nothing. And there’s nothing more fun than watching an obnoxious teenager type get schooled by Mr. Feeny.
But Newt had better start cultivating his inner warm and fuzzy, because the media will jump on him with both feet. Newt’s personal history means he’ll already have a bit of trouble drawing the female vote; his tendency toward looking down his nose will make him even less popular with single women, who tend to resonate to the candidate who can “feel their pain.”
This is not to argue that Romney would be better on this score. He wouldn’t. He’s ice cold, and cloyingly glib to boot. But it is a word of advice for the probable Republican candidate: emotion wins elections, not mere recitation of facts and figures. If Newt can master the art of allowing inner warmth to show through, he will dominate Obama. If not, the election will be a battle to the end.
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