I much admired Newt Gingrich at one time. In 1994, when he gained leadership of the House Republicans, they were a dispirited bunch more or less resigned to permanent impotence. Newt changed that, doing something new in American politics: he nationalized the election for the House of Representatives, and achieved a monumental victory.
True, he had some help from Bill Clinton and the “Hillarycare” fiasco; but still, Gingrich proved himself a visionary leader who could do great things.
That was then. Republicans now keen to nominate him for president would do well to remember that he left politics in 1998 as a pariah. In fact, Democrats at the time actually ran ads using his name as a bogeyman to scare voters. People may no longer remember exactly what made Gingrich such a monster then (and the attacks were overblown and unfair); but the bad odor lingers, and in one poll at least 56% of voters still view him negatively. That’s a mountainous hurdle to overcome, in a presidential election. Nominating Newt would enable the Democrats to make this election about Newt rather than the economy.
Admittedly, with Romney, they’ll try to make it about his business career (and, sotto voce, his religion). But still, Romney would be far better positioned to keep the focus on the economic issues.
And further, of course, Newt’s bad aura isn’t all just a matter of ancient history.
At one time, divorce was practically fatal in presidential politics. Remember 1964? (Well, I’m that old.) A new baby just before the California primary may have done for Nelson Rockefeller because it reminded voters he had a new wife. Americans were long scolded for being so narrow-minded, and told to emulate the French, who didn’t seem to care that President Mitterand had a second family on the side.
Well, America has indeed become more relaxed, to the point where Gingrich’s marital history may no longer be the absolute disqualifier it would once have been. But we’re not at the point where it’s absolutely disregarded either – nor should we be.
I consider myself as socially liberal as anyone. And in choosing a president what matters most to me is the policies he or she will pursue. But the presidency also has undeniable symbolic importance. We are choosing a metaphorical civic father, not just a technocrat, which indeed is why America pays such huge attention to this choice.
Thus we should look for not just someone who will pursue the right policies – innumerable individuals could qualify on that score – but someone who also embodies rarer qualities of character, enabling him to fulfill the civic father role, as well.
Thus we have what used to be called “the character issue.” We don’t want our president to be a crumb or a prick. And this really is not just a matter of aesthetics. We need a leader with the sound judgment and personal character to respond appropriately to the many difficult challenges and situations he will face. We need someone who thinks not only of himself, but with a broadness of spirit enabling him to do the right thing when it may not be easy or expedient.