Throughout this pre-primary season, I’ve argued that the number one priority for Republicans is to find a conservative who can articulate the party’s beliefs in a way that appeals to independent, middle-of-the-road voters. Now that Newt Gingrich has surged to the top of the polls, it is fair to ask whether he is such a candidate.

With Gingrich, the best approach is to look at the last time he was at the top of national politics, in the mid-1990s when he was speaker of the House. The data we have from that period suggests that Gingrich would have a hard time holding on to the political center of the country.

In the 1998 Almanac of American Politics, Michael Barone summed up Gingrich’s political career to date in these terms: “He had more success as an inside-the-House legislative leader than as an outside-the-House shaper of public opinion.”

This is an extremely insightful point – there are indeed two sides to the Gingrich story. The 104th Congress remains an important milestone in the history of American conservatism, in that it fought for welfare reform, tax cuts, and a balanced budget, and won reelection in 1996 based on this record. Much of the credit goes to Gingrich, who – unlike many of his fellow Republican House colleagues in the 1970s and 1980s – was never happy with life in the minority. He held fast to a view that for decades was simply “outrageous:” the House could tip Republican, and it could take a lead role in national reforms.

And yet, his approval numbers while he was in charge of the House were dreadful. Gallup found his net favorable rating in negative territory by the early spring of 1995 (33 percent approve to 47 percent disapprove, or a 14 point net negative), and at the end of 1995 his net negatives would exceed 25 points, where they would remain for the rest of his tenure.

By the time of the 1996 election, Gingrich had become a drag on the nationwide Republican brand. Consider the following chart, which tracks Gingrich’s favorable rating in the 1996 exit poll, by two metrics. First, it looks at his approval rating among all voters, and among only Bob Dole voters. Second, it looks at his approval rating nationwide and in Georgia.

These are very weak numbers indeed. Obviously, his 32 percent national favorable rating shows that only the core GOP base was behind him, but even then Gingrich was viewed favorably by just 61 percent of Dole voters nationwide. And in Georgia – his home state where people knew him best – he could not even pull in three quarters from Dole voters.

What accounts for this weakness? In the ’98 Almanac, Barone offered this thesis:

Some of this reflects the bias of a press which routinely portrays him unfairly, but not all. What is it that so many people dislike about him? A cocksureness, a professorial abstractness about policy, a more than occasional petulance and high self regard. America, after all, is not a Gaullist country.

And as Fred Barnes points out in the latest issue of THE WEEKLY STANDARD:

Talk to any of Gingrich’s current or former associates and you hear about the “bad Newt.” This is the undisciplined Gingrich, prone, as one long-time friend says, “to overshoot the runway on something,” perhaps with a wild and inappropriate comment that’s ruinous to his campaign. Many of those who know him believe it’s only a matter of time before he runs amok.

Both of these observations are spot on, and help explain why he fell so quickly after rising to the top of the heap after the 1994 midterm. And to this list we might add another item: political miscalculation when the stakes were high.

As mentioned before, Gingrich deserves high praise for his leadership in the 104th Congress through most of 1995, but he miscalculated during the 1995-96 budget battle. He assumed, incorrectly, that Clinton would cave to the congressional GOP. When Clinton didn’t, and the government shut down, the House GOP was caught flatfooted. Rather than pin the blame on Clinton for the shutdown, congressional Republicans seemed to exult in the cessation of government activities. This played right into the hands of Dick Morris’s “triangulation” strategy, as Clinton suddenly seemed not to be the liberal that he was in 1993-94, but rather a moderate who blunted the ideological extremism of both congressional parties.

And, of course, Clinton made sure to tether Gingrich to Bob Dole during the 1996 presidential campaign. This ad is one of many along the same lines that the Clinton/Gore team ran:

In the final analysis, I would follow Barone’s take from 1998. Newt Gingrich is, without doubt, one of the most important Republican members of Congress in the postwar era, right up there with GOP giants like Bob Taft. His vision of what the congressional GOP could be, a fearless and conservative agent for change, continues to inspire congressional Republicans to this day. Indeed, it is very doubtful that Paul Ryan would have won such strong support for his budget if Gingrich had not shown the way.

Yet his strengths outside the institution of Congress seem to be limited. The Revolution of 1994 was not a one-off event; instead, the GOP has held the House for seven of the last nine terms. But Gingrich could not sustain himself as the leader of this triumphant party. His professorial manner, his tendency to put his foot in his mouth, and his miscalculation during the 1995-96 shutdown destroyed his public image, and he resigned in 1998.

Has Gingrich changed since then? I’m not so sure. He definitely put his foot in his mouth when he blasted Paul Ryan’s budget, ditto when he recently called child labor laws "truly stupid." That's certainly grist for the Democratic mill. And consider this news item from The Hill: Gingrich plans to teach an online course when he becomes president. Talk about professorial!

So, I doubt that Gingrich could pull in those independent voters who swing elections. He has a lot of strengths, no doubt, but he has just as many weaknesses. And it seems to me that a national campaign against Obama would draw out the weaknesses more than the strengths.

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