Newt Gingrich has a lot going for him if he decides to run for president—a famous name, a record of accomplishment, a knack for raising money, and a rhetorical flair that appeals to his party's conservative base. It's almost enough to make you forget his central handicap, which is that he is Newt Gingrich.
Succeed Barack Obama in the White House? Given his latest news making, he has a better chance of replacing Charlie Sheen in "Two and a Half Men."
The chief problem is not that Gingrich has been through two divorces and is married to a woman with whom he was having an affair while married to his second wife. Last week, he did himself no good by attributing his lapses to excessive work and patriotism. But Americans don't care that much about sexual probity in politicians.
They elected Bill Clinton after Gennifer Flowers came forward to say she had an affair with him. Following his impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair, he left office with the highest approval rating of any outgoing president going back to Dwight Eisenhower.
No, Gingrich suffers from a worse flaw: He is a demagogue, and demagogues don't get elected president of the United States. They get TV attention, they sometimes get big crowds, they even win the occasional primary. But their only essential function is to fail.
The presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, in a telephone conversation, says demagoguery can be defined as "extremism married to flamboyance, and it helps if you have delusions of grandeur." Those qualities, conspicuous in Gingrich, have shown up in other demagogues who aspired to the White House.
There was Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who railed against "anarchists" and "pseudo-intellectuals" while threatening treason charges for antiwar protesters. In 1968, he got 13 percent of the vote and carried five Southern states—a strong showing for a third-party candidate, but nothing more.
There was Pat Buchanan, who ran in the Republican primaries in 1992 and 1996 excoriating gays, atheists, and illegal immigrants, winning New Hampshire on his second try. But in the end, Republican voters overwhelmingly went for establishment candidates.
So poorly have rabble-rousers fared in actual presidential contests that they rarely even show up anymore, except in peripheral roles—as with Republican Alan Keyes and Democrat Al Sharpton. There is no market for them.
The Republican Party, for all its conservative bent, has consistently passed up hard-core right-wingers in favor of comparative centrists, like Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000. The party's base rarely gets its heart's desire.
Throughout his career, Gingrich has done his best to ingratiate himself with the most rabid ideologues in the GOP. In 1990, he advised fellow House Republicans to refer to Democrats with such words as "sick," "pathetic," "destructive," "anti-family," and "traitors."
He has never lost his penchant for bombast, vitriol, and shameless invention. He says Obama "doesn't even have the courage to tell truth about who wants to kill us" and accuses him of "pandering to radical Islam." He claimed that in December, because Congress and Obama agreed to extend the tax cuts, "the economy improved overnight"—"literally."
There is no claim so reckless or implausible that Gingrich will not make it, with an air of complete certitude. That's the true mark of the demagogue. He is incapable of measured judgments.
With Gingrich, the excess goes beyond adjectives to adverbs. Obama's national security policy is not just mistaken, not just risky, but "enormously dangerous." The administration is guilty not of hypocrisy or utter hypocrisy but "utter total hypocrisy."
The rhetorical volume is always turned up to high—and then turned up another notch. Incendiary words are to Gingrich what whiskey is to an alcoholic. He can never get enough.
But the people who get elected president know how to convey calm rationality. They come across as grounded and sane. The Obama of 2008 succeeded because he inspired without inflaming. Bush was elected in 2000 as a "compassionate conservative." Bill Clinton won in 1992 by pulling his party back to the center, offering himself as "the man from Hope."
Man from Hope? Gingrich is the man from Fear. When they see someone of that type, most voters think to themselves: Now, that's scary.
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