Campaign 2012: Hello Newt Gingrich, GOP Presidential Candidate?
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Campaign 2012: Hello Newt Gingrich, GOP Presidential Candidate?

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Newt Gingrich addresses the 38th annual CPAC meeting in Washington
Newt Gingrich addresses the 38th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. (Larry Downing/courtesy Reuters)

Someone had to go first. So Newt Gingrich did. While the other major candidates for the GOP nomination in 2012 decline to declare their intentions, the former speaker of the House announced yesterday that he intends to look “very seriously” at a presidential run.

Okay. Okay. Gingrich has not officially joined the race. Although his advisers had said he would use his visit yesterday to his old stomping grounds in Georgia to announce the creation of his presidential exploratory committee, what we got instead was Gingrich saying he intends to think about it. The pundits are deriding the non-announcement announcement. They are itching for the campaign to start. But Gingrich had good reason to stop short of a formal announcement—he has yet to untangle his complex web of business and political interests, thus putting himself at risk of violating Federal Election Commission (FEC) regulations coming out of the gate if he did announce a run. The FEC considers his statement yesterday as “testing the waters,” which does not invoke our byzantine federal election laws. But Fox News has suspended Gingrich from his commentator’s job, and he did announce a new website yesterday, That’s good enough for TWE to say, "He’s in!"

(Yes, for the purists out there, Gingrich would not be the first Republican presidential candidate to form a presidential exploratory committee. Atlanta radio talk show host and former Godfather’s Pizza impresario Herman Cain did so in January, and former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer did likewise yesterday. TWE will be publishing Hello! Posts for both men next week. But Gingrich is the first major candidate to edge toward a formal decision.)

The Basics

  • Full Name: Newton Leroy Gingrich
  • Date of Birth: June 17, 1943
  • Place of Birth: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
  • Religion: Roman Catholic
  • Marital Status: Married
  • Children: Lynda Kathleen Gingrich Lubbers, age 47; Jacqueline Sue Gingrich Cushman, age 44
  • Alma Mater: BA Emory, MA and PhD Tulane
  • Political Offices Held: Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1979 to 1999, House Minority Whip from 1989 to 1995, Speaker of the House from 1995 to 1999

What Supporters Say. The Iowa caucuses are the first official event on the Republican presidential calendar. Winning in Iowa won’t guarantee any candidate the nomination, but it will give his or her campaign a shot in the arm. Iowa House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer is one Iowan saying nice things about Gingrich:

I, for one, think that this is just the right guy to be president of the United States. And I think there’s a whole lot of people in this room who agree with me…I’m a real fan. If he decides to run, I’m pretty likely to support him. I think he’s a solutions guy, an ideas guy. And that’s what I think we need.

Kevin Alons is another Iowan active in Republican party politics who likes Gingrich:

I’ve heard Newt speak a number of times and know about his past, good and bad. He’s smart, articulate and has good ideas and would be a competent guy to do it, if he can get past what got him the first time.

Rick Tyler, Gingrich’s longtime aide and spokesman, sings his boss’s praises:

I don’t know anyone else like him. There is no other political figure who has been out of office for ten years who has maintained such a presence and name recognition. It’s clearly a plus.

What Critics Say. No one can be in politics as long as Gingrich has been without picking up enemies along the way. Don’t count Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) as a Gingrich fan. He has gone on record with his distaste for the former speaker’s martial choices.

He is a super-smart man, but he doesn’t know anything about commitment to marriage…He’s the last person I’d vote for for president of the United States. His life indicates he does not have a commitment to the character traits necessary to be a great president.

Coburn hasn’t let the issue drop. Just this week he knocked Gingrich again on C-SPAN.

He is undoubtedly the smartest man I’ve ever met. He is a thinker. He has great vision, The question to me is, does he have the capability to lead the country? And having served under him in the House, he is probably not one that I would choose to support in a presidential primary.

Another Oklahoman who isn’t singing Gingrich’s praises is his former Republican colleague in the House of Representatives, Mickey Edwards:

I’ve known Newt now for thirty years almost. But I wouldn’t be able to describe what his real principles are. I never felt that he had any sort of a real compass about what he believed except for the pursuit of power.

Stories You Will Hear More About. Gingrich’s mother, seventeen-year-old Kathleen Daugherty, divorced his nineteen-year-old father, Newton C. McPherson, when their marriage fell apart after just three days. Three years later, Gingrich’s mother married Artillery Officer Robert B. Gingrich, who subsequently adopted him.

During high school, Gingrich secretly vowed to marry his geometry teacher, Jackie Battley. They were married after his freshman year of college, when he was nineteen and she was twenty-six. They had their first child two years later. Their marriage lasted eighteen years. Gingrich denies the oft-told story that he told Jackie that he wanted a divorce while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery.

Gingrich married Marianne Ginther the same year he divorced Jackie. Gingrich’s second marriage lasted nineteen years. In 1998, Gingrich had an extramarital affair with a House staffer, Callista Bisek, while he was pushing to impeach President Bill Clinton for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Gingrich married Callista in 2000.

Gingrich’s problems have not just been personal. In 1997, he became the first Speaker of the House in history to be reprimanded for his conduct. House members voted overwhelming to order him to pay a $300,000 fine because two nonprofit initiatives he oversaw violated tax laws and he lied to House ethics investigators. (The Internal Revenue Service subsequently determined that the initiatives did not violate tax laws.)

Gingrich’s tenure as speaker of the House was marked by what his critics called mercurial and childish behavior. Perhaps the best known incident came in 1995 when told reporters that he had pushed for a government shutdown because Clinton administration officials had snubbed him on a flight from Israel back to the United States. The “snub”? They had forced him and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole to exit Air Force One through the back door after a return flight from Israel.

This is petty. You’ve been on the plane for twenty-five hours and nobody has talked to you, and they ask you to get off the plane by the back ramp ... You just wonder, where is their sense of manners? Where is their sense of courtesy?

Gingrich’s complaint was mocked by Republicans and Democrats alike, and it severely undercut the GOP’s negotiating position with the White House over the budget.

In 2009, Gingrich converted to Catholicism. Talk of moral regeneration and redemption has been a staple of Gingrich’s talk and work for the last several years. He recently wrote Rediscovering God in America, and he and Callista have produced a film about Pope John Paul II.

Gingrich in His Own Words. Gingrich is known for thinking big. Someone who returns his party to majority control after four decades in the minority has to be audacious. He once told an audience how he approaches life:

There’s a large part of me that’s four years old. I wake up in the morning and I know that somewhere there’s a cookie. I don’t know where it is but I know it’s mine and I have to go find it. That’s how I live my life. My life is amazingly filled with fun.

The Campaign Book. Tradition now requires presidential candidates to write a campaign book. George W. Bush wrote A Charge to Keep. Barack Obama wrote The Audacity of Hope. Gingrich continues the tradition with Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine. He doesn’t pull any punches. In case the title is too subtle, here is the thrust of Gingrich’s argument:

To put it plainly, America is facing an existential threat—and it comes from a movement that fundamentally rejects the traditional American conception of who we are. No longer, in the Left’s view, are we the Americans of the frontier, the sturdy, independent farmer; no longer are we America the capitalist colossus serving as the arsenal of democracy; no longer are we the America that believes our liberty is an unalienable right that comes from God. All this the security society wants to deny—and is denying—in favor of a secular, bureaucratic society guided by government elites.

(Editorial aside: The historian Frederick Jackson Turner wrote a famous essay more than a century ago noting that the American frontier had closed. Gingrich has a PhD in history, so he knows this. Plus it is worth noting that the vast majority of Americans don’t live anywhere near a farm let alone till their own soil and grow their own food. But presumably TWE does not begrudge a presidential candidate his rhetorical excesses.)

Save America isn’t Gingrich’s first foray into the publishing world. He has written or co-written more than twenty alternative history novels and nonfiction books. Some of the titles include: 1945; Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8; Valley Forge: George Washington and the Crucible of Victory; and Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America. Does President Obama know that the main theme of his 2011 State of the Union Address is the title of a Gingrich book?

Foreign Policy Views. Gingrich is an internationalist of the interventionist persuasion. He has been demanding that the Obama administration do more to take advantage of the recent unrest in the Middle East. On February 22 he told Fox News:

There’s almost a conspiracy of silence if it’s an anti-American government. Libya and Iran—to take those two examples—are clearly active opponents of the United States, and finding a way to replace them would be enormously to our advantage, and the people of both countries are prepared to risk their lives. But they get almost no support from either the United States or any serious interest in the United Nations Security Council.

Gingrich argues that Obama’s policy on Iran amounts to appeasement. When asked for an alternative, he says, “Replace the government.” When asked if that means he supports a war with Iran, he answers:

Not necessarily. There’s every reason to believe that if you simply targeted gasoline, and you maximized your support for dissidents in Iran, that within a year you’d replace the regime without a war.

This is a classic example of offering big results at a low cost. Most presidential candidates try this gambit. And as is usually the case, it’s mostly hot air. The chances that the United States could make gasoline sanctions stick are pretty low. Few countries have any interest in them, and some of Iran’s biggest gasoline suppliers are countries such as India that the United States is trying to woo.

TWE will do a more thorough review of Gingrich’s foreign policy views once the campaign gets going and there is grist for comparing and contrasting his approach to those of his fellow candidates.

Target Audience. Gingrich competes with Sarah Palin for the support of the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, and as a result, he would be the biggest winner if she declines to enter the race. His political operation has helped train the new wave of elected officials who swept to federal and state office in the November 2 elections. Ever since then, he has pushed Tea Party themes. As Speaker of the House John Boehner was maneuvering late last month to avoid, at least temporarily, a government shutdown, Gingrich took to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post to urge House Republicans to stick to their small government, budget cutting principles.

Major Strengths. Gingrich brings tremendous name recognition and speaking skills to the race. He is, as Chris Cilliza has put it, a “charismatic speaker and able debater, and [he] almost certainly will occupy the ‘ideas guy’ space in the field -- no matter who winds up running.” Both strengths will help in a contest that has no clear front-runner.

Gingrich’s name recognition and oratory skills explain his fund-raising prowess. He has so far out-raised every potential Republican candidate.

His advocacy group, American Solutions for Winning the Future, which raised $52 million dollars in its first four years of operation, is the most successful fund-raising operation of its kind. But critics say it exists mainly to raise money; it spends almost two-thirds of the money it raises on fund-raising.

Major Weaknesses. Gingrich is a polarizing personality who is as well known for his professional and personal missteps as he is for his considerable successes. TIME nicely summarized his baggage and its assessment of his nomination chances:

Gingrich’s past, professional and personal, present a serious impediment to his potential as a presidential candidate. As speaker of the House, he lost many battles against President Bill Clinton in the arena of public opinion, and he ended his career on the Hill as a divisive and largely unpopular leader. His three marriages, two divorces and admissions of infidelity have tarnished Gingrich’s reputation with some sections of the conservative base, and his penchant for bombast can be off-putting to moderates.

Gingrich’s marital history turns off social conservatives such as Senator Coburn. That’s a problem. Social conservatives are a major force in the Iowa caucuses. Their lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy could derail his presidential run before it can gain any momentum.

Gingrich’s aggressive fund-raising tactics could also be a potential source of trouble for his campaign.  American Solutions has been accused of unethical and unsavory practices by consumer advocates.

Gingrich in Depth. Barrels of ink have been spilled celebrating, castigating, and psychoanalyzing Gingrich. The New York Times reviews his efforts to reinvent himself on the eve of the 2012 campaign. Esquire calls him “the essential Republican.” surveys the obstacles he faces on the road to the White House. John Dickerson asks whether he can overcome the fact that his tenure as speaker of the House left many Americans with a dim view of his leadership abilities. In 2006, the Atlantic attributed Gingrich’s success to “the willingness to take the long view.” A 1994 New York Times article reviewed Gingrich’s original fund-raising techniques, which raised eyebrows at the time. TIME described the tactics he used to work his way up to speaker of the House as “guerrilla warfare.”

Gingrich has appeared on more TV talk shows than anyone can count. He appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart last year to plug his book To Try Men’s Souls. Three years ago he was on The Daily Show to discuss Sarah Palin, an interview that takes on some irony given that Palin may enter the presidential race as well. Gingrich, always one to be on the cutting edge of technology, has done a YouTube interview. Just last month he sat down with Christiane Amanpour of ABC’s This Week.

Odds for Winning the Nomination. Gingrich’s personal baggage makes him an unlikely nominee but not a long shot like Herman Cain. Chris Cilliza captures the conventional wisdom:

Most GOP political observers seem to regard Gingrich as a pleasant distraction rather than a serious contender. His detractors note that Gingrich is the Icarus of Republican politics—he flies high but always winds up going just a little too close to the sun.

A February 2011 Gallup poll found that Gingrich had 9 percent of the support of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, putting him behind Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and Sarah Palin. gives 17–to-1 odds on Gingrich winning the GOP nomination. So if you wagered $10, you could win $170, assuming of course you were in a jurisdiction where betting is legal.

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