Does Gingrich actually want to be President?
By Ben Adler
The opinions expressed are his own.
There is a well-established template for a politician who has ascended to the pinnacle of national politics, tumbled off of it, and wants to return to run for president. You get out of Washington. You occupy yourself in private or charitable endeavors, maybe write anodyne books and studiously avoid making controversial proclamations that might come back to haunt you.
Richard Nixon, after losing his 1960 presidential bid and his ill-advised 1962 run for Governor of California followed this script and was elected in 1968. But former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who recently announced his candidacy for president, hasn’t merely detoured from this path in recent years, he’s gone completely in the other direction. In fact, everything he has done since he was Speaker suggests he never planned to run for president, and he hasn’t made the appropriate preparations.
After Gingrich famously miscalculated and cost his party seats in the 1998 midterms by impeaching Bill Clinton for a brief episode of philandering, Gingrich left his own wife — who had just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis — for his mistress. That was his first mistake; well, actually his second, since he had previously left his first wife while she was in the hospital with cancer for his second wife. (Gingrich’s personal history was the subject of a devastating profile in Esquire last year.)
Gingrich had over a decade before his presidential run to come up with a plausible apology, defense, excuse or explanation for his behavior, and he doesn’t appear to have bothered doing so. Instead, when recently asked about his adultery Gingrich claimed that cheating was the inevitable consequence of working too hard because of “how passionately I felt about this country.”
His ineptitude at explaining his love life is but one example. Gingrich stayed inside the Beltway and sought influence through think tanks and political action committees. His American Solutions group has competed with major conservative groups for attention and donations, weakening his campaign’s base of support among them. “He burned a lot of bridges,” Richard Viguerie, a leading conservative activist and fundraiser told TPM on Monday.
Meanwhile, he has lived like the consummate Washington insider. That probably won’t help him in, say, the South Carolina primary. Gingrich knows that, which is why he claimed Monday, in his 36th appearance at a breakfast meeting of the Christian Science Monitor, that he is “people’s candidate, not the capital’s candidate,” and he is not a “Washington figure.”
That’s a hard sell when your wife was working in Congress as recently as 2007. It’s because of Callista Gingrich’s job, and the attendant government-employment disclosure forms, that we recently learned Newt owed between $250,001 and $500,000 to the Tiffany’s jewelry store in 2006. This creates three negative impressions: that he lives a lavish life, that he cannot manage his money and that he may have been buying jewelry for yet another mistress. Had Gingrich planned on running for president, and acted shrewdly, he could have helped Callista leave Congress for a non-profit sinecure that wouldn’t require such detailed financial disclosure. The Gingrich campaign was completely unprepared for the Tiffany’s revelation: when Politico broke the story his spokesman simply declined to comment.
Most dubiously, Gingrich signed a contributor contract with Fox News, which virtually guaranteed that he would put his foot in his mouth at some point. When Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee took similar contracts, it was viewed, correctly, as a sign they were more interested in making money than running for president. Being a talking head is no way to appear presidential, even if you are more circumspect in what you say than Gingrich is.
Gingrich has made a habit of saying and writing strident things he may come to regret. Among the highlights:
-Opining that President Obama may subscribe to a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” worldview.
-Saying Obama is “dictatorial.”
-Writing a book titled “To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine.”
While this sort of aggressive culture war-mongering could make Gingrich radioactive to swing voters in the general election, his penchant for piping up on every policy issue has damaged his credibility among the Republican base. In 2007 Gingrich supported a cap and trade system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (He switched sides in time for the 2009 vote on it in Congress.) Gingrich is also a former supporter of an individual mandate to buy health insurance as part of health care reform and he barnstormed the country with Al Sharpton supporting Obama’s education reform agenda. Of course, in 1994 Gingrich wanted to abolish the Department of Education itself.
Three decades of making dramatic public pronouncements can leave you with a long record of gaffes and flip-flops. If Gingrich had been preparing for a presidential run he not only might have cut out this habit before getting in the race, he certainly would have restrained himself from going on “Meet the Press” on May 15 and harshly criticizing the House Republican budget plan as “social engineering” before backtracking with a grandiose press release. Gingrich’s defense of his gaffe is that he was set up by the “gotcha press.” Given what it takes to run for president, that sounds like Gingrich confessing that he isn’t ready for prime time.