News & Politics

Newt Gingrich: Be Careful What You Wish For

Gingrich has a talent for self-detonating. But his advantages could make him a formidable opponent to Obama.

Recent polls paint a picture of a frustrated public increasingly distrustful of government and turning away from political parties. Could Newt Gingrich use these conditions to his advantage? The answer is “maybe.” Especially if he continues to exploit rifts among Republicans on issues like immigration.

Let's start with some numbers:

  • President Obama's job approvalrating is 43.4%; and his disapproval rate has been higher than his approval rating for the last 5 months;
  • Congress's approval rating is 12.3%; and its disapproval ratings have been (much) higher than its approval ratings for 3 years;
  • 73% of those polled think the country is going in the wrong direction;
  • 89% of those polled do not trust the governmentto do the right thing;
  • Romney and Gingrich are the only two - of the current set of Republican candidates - to be "acceptable" to more than half of Republican voters(Gingrich now has a higher rating);
  • Gingrich is leading in Iowa, polling by 12 percentage points (having surged by several thousand percent); he is trailing by 12 percentage points in New Hampshire (but is rising); he is leading in South Carolina by 20 percentage points;
  • 57% of Republicans over age 65 favor "no path to citizenship" for illegal immigrants; 68% of Republicans under 30 favor some sort of path; and
  • President Obama leads Governor Romney 45.9 to 44.4 in current polling; he leads Speaker Gingrich by 49 to 42.

I still find it hard to believe Gingrich will actually be nominated by the Republican Party, but clearly no one in the known universe understands whatever dynamic is currently at work in that party. Certainly all of the major Republican columnists have to be talked down from various ledges right now. But the numbers say directly that he has a very plausible shot; and they say indirectly that he has arguments available that Romney lacks.

So, just in case, some thoughts. And to be clear, while I spent a couple of fairly intense periods observing him, I do not in any real sense know him.

I agree largely with the conventional wisdom. I think the President is highly likely to win re-election under any circumstances, but Gingrich's nomination would most likely be a gift to President Obama. With Gingrich as his opponent I would give the President right now about a 53% chance of winning.

Gingrich really does have baggage; he is extraordinarily lacking in self-discipline; and he has a very high "likely to blow himself up at any random moment" index. His self- advertised unique capacity for big, fundamental, new ideas reminds me of the joke about pilots. There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots; but there are no old, bold pilots. In this case there are bold, fundamental, new ideas; and there are good ideas. With Newt, you do not see many bold, fundamental, new and good ideas.

But there are a few reasons not to discount him. First, Newt's baggage is already "in the market." He has been around a long time; voters already know all the skeletons that matter; and they've already discounted the news. Second, in terms of the "enthusiasm" issue, Newt may even have an advantage over Obama. It is reasonably clear that no segment of the Republican Party actually thirsts for Mitt Romney; they will put up with him. And this won't get better: Romney gives bland and milquetoast a whole new meaning. More important, Romney's serial changes of mind are part of what voters are saying when 89% of them are saying they do not trust government to do the right thing. On the other hand, I can see the Republican Party getting itself revved up for Gingrich. Third, my gut says there is an unoccupied space in the political market -- the compassionate conservative thinker who is actually serious about governing. David Brooks' Dec. 12th column in the New York Times makes this point. I know that we all became used to thinking of “compassionate conservative thinker” as a contraction, but it doesn't have to be so. And I think we are seeing a glimpse of it in Iowa. All of the other Republican candidates immediately jumped on Gingrich for his "soft" stand on immigration: Romney could barely contain himself. Well, it turns out quite large plurality of Iowans agree with Newt. And the national polling data on Republicans and immigration makes a similar point. Younger Republicans are much closer to Gingrich than to the Republican no-way, no-how mainstream.

I see these immigration poll results as the canary in the cage, signaling that the tea party craziness is a spent force and the "God, guns, and gays" rhetoric so beloved by Republican politicians is not a continuing wave. My guess is that a large number of Republicans are deeply bothered by the Republican debate clown shows and want someone to emerge with a modern and serious definition of "conservative."

Finally, Gingrich has a good shot -- at least a draw -- in debates with Obama. The debates have become more and more influential in Presidential campaigns. President Obama is very, very good at them. Governor Romney is not particularly good: he gives an impression of the arrogant, distant CEO who is just waiting until he can fire some people and cut costs. Speaker Gingrich, to date, has been quite good; and -- if he could hold himself in check -- could match President Obama for knowledge, humor, and a sense of depth and gravitas.

All of this leaves me with the following personal conclusions. The Republican contest remains extremely uncertain; this is the first time in decades that only two candidates have been regarded as acceptable by at least half the party. Romney has to be regarded by President Obama's strategists as the opponent who would on average be the most difficult. But Romney also offers very little upside risk - as they say in the markets. Speaker Gingrich is a stock with huge amounts of upside and downside risk. He could - probably will - blow himself up; but he is smarter than Governor Romney and a more gifted politician. In an election in which both sides start with about 45% of the vote and the whole battle will be for a majority of that center 10%, and voters, in droves, have been moving away from party allegiance, the Gingrich upside risk should worry those who would like to see Obama elected.


 

Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic presidents. Cutter is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.
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