Theodore Lowi's "Three Laws of the Presidency" is one of the handier pseudepigrapha of politics, a tip-sheet that dusts off the industry's clichés and repackages them as for-the-ages wisdom. And the truest of Lowi's laws is the third:
Every president contributes to the upgrading of his predecessors.
If anyone's carving a tombstone for the Bush era, quick: chisel that at the top. The bumbling of the present administration has transformed Ronald Reagan from a flawed-but-fun conservative (amnesty! Gas tax! The Beirut cut-and-run!) into a fixture on Mount Olympus. It has resurrected the reputation of Bill Clinton so thoroughly, so blindingly, that his once-loathed wife now holds 1:1 odds of replacing Bush II in the White House.
And no one has gotten better mileage out of the Bush decline than Newt Gingrich. There's no media angle the former Speaker of the House doesn't have covered. Everyone loves a comeback, and he's staging big one. Everyone loves a Republican Jeremiah who'll bash his party (go and check the news hits for "Senator Gordon Smith" before he came out against the Iraq war, then check them after), and Gingrich is a natural. No one is really satisfied with the GOP's field of 2008 candidates, and Gingrich is happy to report that if the race continues to grind on the way it has, he might do a cannonball into the shallow talent pool. As the Weekly Standard scribe Matt Continetti put it in a cover story:
Out of office, Gingrich has remained largely insulated from the scandals and debacles of the Bush Republicans. In fact, the 2006 midterm election results could be viewed as confirmation of what Gingrich has been saying for some time: that the Republican party and broader conservative movement have lost their way, and the time has come for a rebirth of the reform impulse that in 1994 brought the GOP to congressional majority status for the first time in 40 years.
And there's the official take from the ambitious, long-lived DraftNewt.org:
From his earliest days in Congress, Newt Gingrich has thought the big picture. He has been a man who has dared to dream. And as a member of Congress, he taught many of us to challenge the status quo. Republicans wouldn't have gained the majority in 1994 without him. We lost that majority this November; why? We strayed from our principles, the very principles we adhered to when a man from Georgia was our voice, our Speaker.
A problem: This isn't quite true. Speaker Gingrich actually did the same thing he fulminates so effectively against in this, the pre-Fred Thompson era. He got to Washington, had a few successes, and then went native. He was Tom DeLay before Tom DeLay was cool.
And if that's a little unfair, the story of the Newt speakership is at least more interesting than the Frank Capra-lite version that animates his would-be White House bid. Gingrich's first months were, mostly, a success. The Contract of America's 10 provisions all came to votes; the once-omnipotent committee chairmen were slapped down with term limits; and for the first time in decades, the majority slashed earmarks. And then the budget shutdown mounted, and Gingrich's resolve started to melt. As National Review's editors put it in 1998, when Gingrich resigned the speaker's gavel:
The failure of one Contract item (the Balanced Budget Amendment) led Congress to try, in 1995, to balance the budget all by itself, which led to the famous budget deadlock and governmental shutdown (see "Lost Opportunity Society," page 44, for details). After that, the cupboard was bare. All of his other debacles—the book advance, the bad trip on Air Force One, the ethics fight-would have meant little if he had had some Plan B. He didn't.
Talk to some of the Class of 1994 who've stayed in politics (like Tom Coburn) or found the escape hatch (Dick Armey or Steve Largent) and they'll recall what happened next. After 1996 and Clinton's re-election, Gingrich mulled a run for the White House. His approval ratings were in the tank, thanks to (conservatives say) the mau-mauing he took from the Beltway media or (liberals say) the unpopularity of Republican government-cutting measures with voters. Gingrich's response: Stop being unpopular. He learned to love the Clinton budget negotiators and answered chairmen and senior GOP members' pleas for more local pork. In 1998, ramming through a balanced budget that spent mightily but didn't cut taxes, Gingrich answered critics by telling them, in so many words, to "grow up."
This irked the GOP's conservatives at the time. Gingrich's erratic leadership inspired a coup against him in 1997 (which failed) and after the 1998 race (which succeeded before it really even began). "Conservatives understand that Gingrich will occasionally sell them out," wrote NR's John J. Miller in a 1998 article making the case for Dick Armey as the Republicans' real, gut-check leader.
You can argue that this doesn't look so awful compared to the carnage that followed, those eight glorious years when Dennis Hastert ruled the Capitol with a doughy fist. But you can't argue that it augers well for a theoretical Gingrich presidency. Here is the dream candidate, the only candidate who can say he led his party over the top in D.C. And what happened? He had a good year and then petered out as the party began the slow process of Abramoffization.
Unsurprisingly, Gingrich prefers the Frank Capra version of the story to the David Lynch version. When he gave a pre-pre-campaign interview to the New Republic's Jason Zengerle, Gingrich revealed that predictable tendency of the semi-retired politician (and the occasional still-pol, like Chuck Hagel)—to talk about events he participated in as if he was watching grimly from the sidelines.
It's a little bit like Camelot. There was this golden moment when Republicans cared about ideas and kept their word. There's a certain virtue to my having left, because there's a clear break point, and then, after I left, gradually the spirit of DeLay and Abramoff became symbolic.
That's fine, but admitting that the GOP should avoid bribery scandals in the future isn't the boldness you might expect in the party's dream candidate. If you want to argue that those scandals were a symptom of the GOP's D.C. nativism and big spending, as epitomized by the 2003 Medicare bill, Gingrich isn't quite as inspiring: He supported that bill. If bellicose calls for war are bringing down the party and ruining the conservative brand, Gingrich... well, it's obvious how that sentence is going to end.
Obviously, the Newt '08 buzz is happening in one of those incredible buzz-fueled wormholes that opens up every campaign season. Some of the people aching for a Gingrich run expect him to lose the Republican primaries, only after infusing the race with his ideas and (admit it) eccentricity. Those are Gingrich qualities that never faded during his speakership, a fact that delighted Reasonoids and non-Reasonoids alike.
Those are also the only reasons to cheer the potential Newt run. Dreaming up a heroic, retconned version of the Republican Revolution and then praying for a comeback? Not good enough.
David Weigel is an associate editor of Reason.