Buenos Aires Herald, November 29, 2011
As the latest chapter in the saga to select the next Republican presidential candidate, the rise of Newt Gingrich highlights the strengths and weaknesses of Mitt Romney, the most likely candidate to win the nomination. There is a sharp contrast between Gingrich’s political experience, ability to understand complex policy issues and courage to discuss issues that other Republicans avoid and his well-known weaknesses, character flaws and past scandals. Though there is never a perfect candidate, Gingrich’s extreme strengths and weaknesses make Romney look like a much safer candidate and, at the same time, a far less likely candidate to stir passions and draw strong support.
Gingrich is a seasoned politician. First elected to Congress in 1978, this politician from the larger Atlanta metropolitan area became the Republican minority whip in 1989 and the Speaker of the House in 1995, when the Republican Party captured the house for the first time in 40 years. Gingrich received a Ph.D. in History from Tulane University in 1971. His dissertation was on educational policy in the Congo under Belgian rule. After a few years as a college professor at West Georgia College, he was denied tenure in 1978. That year, he was elected to Congress on his third try. During the Reagan years, Gingrich started to move up in the Republican leadership. When Bill Clinton was elected president, Gingrich was already the House Minority Whip. Two years later, Gingrich successfully led the Republican Contract with America initiative that allowed his party to capture the House. Though he looked back then as a likely presidential candidate, Gingrich ended up overplaying his card when he forced a government shutdown in early 1996 that ended up favoring President Clinton as Republicans were widely perceived as too ideological and politically irresponsible. Gingrich demise came in 1998, after he supported a Republican initiative to impeach President Clinton. Gingrich was tainted by investigations on ethics violations—and an unprecedented ethics violation $300.000 sanction issued by the House Ethics Committee—and personal life scandals. Eventually, Gingrich resigned in 1998, after the Republican Party lost seats in the midterm election during Clinton’s second term.
After his departure from Congress, Gingrich’s personal life made news as he started dating a former staffer who was 26 years younger. He married her after he divorced in 2000. In 2009, he converted to Catholicism, his third wife’s Callista Bisek’s religion. Because of the way he divorced his first wife in 1980, when she was recovering from cancer and he was having an affair with the woman that would be his second wife, Gingrich’s personal life has always been a subject of controversy.
Gingrich made a living as a lobbyist after his retirement from Congress. Controversies over the companies he worked for and the services he provided to those companies—including a recent scandal about his consulting work for the home mortgage company Freddie Mac, later involved in the subprime housing crisis—led many observers to discount his presidential ambitions when he first entered the Republican race in 2010. The resignation of most of his campaign team in mid-2011 confirmed suspicions about his limited chances of winning. However, as Republican presidential hopefuls have self-destroyed or have failed to convince likely Republican primary voters, Gingrich has emerged in recent weeks as the leading threat against Mitt Romney, the favorite to clinch the Republican nomination.
Unlikely Romney, whose scandals have never reached similar intensity, Gingrich seems to thrive in scandals. He has strong supporters and many firm detractors. He has an extensive record of policy positions that are not necessarily supported by many Republicans. Contrasting Romney, who is seen as too accommodating and whose policy positions are difficult to identify, Gingrich has ideas—perhaps too many and not necessarily very focused or well-thought of—and is not afraid to say them out loud. His recent comments on immigration—when he suggested that it would unwise and unpractical to deport millions of people who have built families and have lives in America—have provoked criticism among hardline Republicans. Yet, that controversy seems to have strengthened him. For those Republicans who think that Romney is a RINO (Republican in Name Only), Gingrich is an alternative that brings huge liabilities but also represents a credible guarantee of strong—though not necessarily always conservative or traditional—Republican views.
Gingrich is probably not going to get the nomination. His rise simply confirms the inevitability of Romney’s anticipated victory in the primaries. The fact that despite his liabilities many Republicans still prefer him to Romney confirms that Romney will have difficulties generating enthusiasm among the hardline conservative base of the Republican Party in the national election in November 2012. However, the fact that Romney apparently has fewer liabilities than Gingrich—and apparently no skeletons in the closet as the former Speaker of the House—underlines Romney’s main strength. He might not motivate the Republican base. Yet, he has few liabilities that President Obama can turn to when the season of negative campaigning begins a few months before the election.