Peggy Noonan calls him “ethically dubious…unreliable….egomaniacal…harebrained.”
George Will says he “embodies the vanity and rapacity that make modern Washington repulsive.”
David Brooks says he “has every negative character trait that conservatives associate with '60s excess: narcissism, self-righteousness, self-indulgence and intemperance.”
And never mind Newt Gingrich’s character—Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry reminded viewers of Saturday night’s debate that Mr. Gingrich once favored a federal mandate on individuals to buy health insurance, a mandate he now calls unconstitutional.
Amid all the attacks, it’s worth pausing to try to understand why Mr. Gingrich, the same man described by these columnists as this vain, rapacious, narcissistic, harebrained egomaniac, is leading the Republican field in some recent polls. It’s a three-part case: past, present, and future.
The past is Mr. Gingrich’s record as a Republican leader in Congress. First, there was the political success of winning the first Republican majority in the House of Representatives in 40 years. Then, as speaker, there were policy successes: Mr. Gingrich worked with a Democratic president to pass a historic welfare reform bill with work requirements, cut the capital gains tax, and balanced the federal budget. Speaker of the House is no small thing; it’s one of the few offices mentioned in the text of the Constitution itself (Article I, Section 2, states “The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker”), which is more than can be said for either the secretary of Treasury or of State. And, according to Presidential Succession Act of 1947, if both the president and vice president were to die in office or to resign, the speaker would be next in line for the presidency and serve out the rest of the term.
The present is how Mr. Gingrich has conducted his campaign for president. He’s been much tougher on the press than the other candidates. In the June 13, 2011, CNN New Hampshire debate, for example, Mr. Gingrich pushed back against CNN’s John King: “John, you mischaracterized me.” Later, he answered a question on immigration by calling the premise of a question “nonsense,” saying, “there are humane, practical steps to solve this problem, if we can get the politicians and the news media to just deal with it honestly.” At the November 9, 2011, CNBC debate, he said, “it’s sad that the news media doesn't report accurately how the economy works.”
In debates, Mr. Gingrich has consistently portrayed himself as an ally of the other Republican candidates rather than a rival. “All of us on the stage represent a dramatically greater likelihood of getting to a paycheck and leaving behind food stamps than does Barack Obama,” he said in the CNBC debate. “Every person at this table is more likely to solve those problems than Barack Obama,” he said in the October 11 Bloomberg-Washington Post debate.
A campaign that understands and conveys that the left-wing press and President Obama, not the other Republicans, are the enemies attracts a certain amount of appreciation from the Republican primary electorate. Rush Limbaugh took notice: “Newt is remaining very consistent in suggesting that for everybody on that stage the real opponent is Obama...and the enemy here is the media. That’s been the position that Newt has taken. He’s been very consistent with that.”
The future—the third prong of Mr. Gingrich’s appeal—relates to the policies he says he’d implement as president. Here, he just matches up better to his rivals on the substance of his policy message. One area where Mr. Gingrich has been willing to criticize a Republican has been in faulting Mitt Romney for limiting his proposed capital gains tax cut to those earning $200,000 a year or less. Mr. Gingrich is absolutely correct about that, explaining to Mr. Romney in Saturday night’s ABC debate: “You know if you really want to create jobs, you want to—you want to encourage the people who make more than $200,000 who actually have capital to invest the capital in the U.S. I’ll stick with zero capital gains, will create vastly more jobs than your proposal.” Mr. Gingrich’s tax plan would cut capital gains tax rates to zero for all taxpayers.
Mr. Gingrich also outdoes both Governor Romney and Governor Perry on taxes other than capital gains. Mr. Romney would cut the corporate tax rate to 25% from 35%; Mr. Perry would take it to 20%; Mr. Gingrich would go all the way down to 12.5%. Mr. Gingrich’s proposed optional 15% flat tax for individual income is also lower than Mr. Perry’s 20% proposal. To those who claim this is unaffordable, Mr. Gingrich responds, in his 21st Century Contract With America: “The biggest key to reducing the deficit is robust economic growth....We can have higher revenues without having higher taxes.” The proposed rates would probably increase in any negotiation with Congressional Democrats to get them passed, anyway, so there’s a virtue in having a Republican open the negotiation from a lower starting point.
For all these strengths, there are a lot of people who think the Republican Party would be crazy to hand over its presidential nomination to a twice-divorced, admittedly overweight history professor-turned-career politician who will be 69 years old on Election Day. Then again, there were a lot of people four years ago who thought the Democrats were taking a big risk by nominating a young, black, law professor from Hawaii and Indonesia named Barack Hussein Obama.