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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

I make no secret of the fact that I believe Newt Gingrich (a) is the darkhorse 2012 candidate who could very well win the GOP nomination; and (b) could, if nominated, present a formidable challenge to Barack Obama’s re-election. Gingrich is an ideas guy–a recent National Journal poll of Washington insiders ranked him the GOP’s most “creative thinker”–and he is more credible on foreign policy and defense than Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, combined.

Gingrich has his liabilities, of course. And aside from his marital history, Gingrich’s biggest weakness is one with which I am occupationally familiar–he’s too professorial. His erudition, policy command and historical references may be assets when he’s on a panel at the Heritage Foundation or AEI, but it just doesn’t work at events like his speech today to attendees at the Conservative Political Action Committee national meeting. In little more than a half hour, Gingrich managed to reference the Judiciary Act of 1802, Camus’ The Plague, Orwell’s 1984, Hayek’s notions of centralized planning, and John Paul II. I was waiting for him to announced that copies of the speech’s footnotes would be available in the lobby.

The former Speaker did have a few good, raw-meat applause lines. He called for elimination of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and his prepared response to Evan Bayh’s claim that if he creates even a single job he’ll have created more than the Obama administration so far was pretty funny. “President Obama has created at least three jobs I know of: Bob McDonnell, Chris Christie, and Scott Brown,” he said. “And I can guarantee you, as a historian, that Scott Brown could not have won without Barack Obama.”

If he wants to the 2012 nominee, however, the fact is that Newt needs less histrionics and less history. Conservatives are looking for leadership, not lectures. They are looking for somebody to channel their energy into something constructive beyond complaints about Democratic rule.

The one theme Gingrich flirted with but never quite articulated, and that could help him if he tinkers with it some, is about the responsibility of conservatives and Republican to govern. His talking point about serious approaches to what he called “principled bi-partisanship” on health care and other matters–which didn’t go over very well–came across more as a complaint about exclusion and lack of transparency by Democrats. It was a taunt, not a proposed solution. And he can’t be serious in suggesting that both parties should govern as equals on health care or anything else when one party control the White House and both chambers of Congress. I seem to remember that the GOP mantra was “elections have consequences” back during the days of Bush/Republican congressional rule; now it’s “both parties are equal”? It’s also beneath him to toss out silly cracks about the “secular-socialist” machine in power in Washington: Leave that bunk to Glenn Beck in his closing address, which starts in a few minutes.

If he felt like being in lecture mode, what Gingrich should have done is warn the assembled CPAC audience that conservatives and Republicans have only demonstrated they can block and obstruct when out of power, but have yet to prove they can govern effectively while exercising power. With the 1995 government shutdown on his resume, Gingrich has to tread carefully on the subject of ability-to-govern. But, for all the conservative excitement of recent months, the party is still trusted less than Democrats to make the right decisions and to govern effectively.

The GOP presidential aspirant who can chart a course for doing something other than just complaining, stalling and stopping Democrats, and can instead make specific case for how and why Republicans can do better, has a chance to separate himself from the field. Palin and Huckabee can be expected to be heavy on platitudes, while Romney and Pawlenty may dull their messages with policy wonkery. So if Gingrich can find a theme–like “less is more”–around which to develop a true governing alternative for Republicans that goes beyond saying “no” and trying to shut-down or blow-up the government, he could easily distinguish himself as the candidate who offers more than carping about the nefarious “Obama-Pelosi-Reid” axis, as he lamely did today.

He can, in short, position himself as the candidate who has proactive ideas and can convince the country that Republicans can ably run the government rather than just obstruct it. That will be a lecture worth hearing.

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