Monday, October 10, 2011

Eye of Newt

President Newton Leroy Gingrich. How does that sound? Roll the words around in your mouth for a bit. Could you get used to that? It’s a cheeky, full-bodied taste, to be sure.

With New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the GOP’s latest deus, opting to remain in his machina, and Sarah Palin sparing us the shrillness and acrimony that would accompany her candidacy, Republicans have come to the bracing realization that their current crop of presidential contenders is as good as things will get.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the safe choice with a haircut you can set your watch by, has reached a plateau of 25 percent in the polls, which is right about his high point from 2008. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, coming off a monster fundraising quarter even as he massively underperforms on the policy front, may once again give credence to the adage that money isn’t everything.

And Herman Cain, everyone seems to agree, is just so doggone likeable. As this column has stated, Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan is the boldest proposal put forward by any GOP candidate, and would be gangbusters for the economy. But it is not sensible for Republicans to nominate someone who lacks even basic comprehension of foreign affairs, as Cain has demonstrated, notwithstanding the strength of his economic platform.

The rest of the field – Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Gary Johnson, Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul – may soldier on for some months, and might add to the policy discussion, but none of them is going to win.

And then there’s Newt. We have described him as yesterday’s man in a hurry, and the former Speaker of the House has shown remarkable energy and determination, even as folks count him out. Indeed, months after much of his staff defected to the Perry camp, Gingrich has offered stronger and more specific policy proposals in debate answers than the Texas Governor has put forward in his entire campaign.

Recently, Newt unveiled his 21st Century Contract with America, a rhetorical and philosophical follow-on from the 1994 plan that led Congressional Republicans to victory. This new compact includes fundamental tax reform, offering people a choice between a flat tax with few deductions and the current system, while eliminating taxes on capital gains and estates, and reducing corporate rates to 12.5%. It repeals Obamacare, reins in the judiciary, and offers clear steps to end economy-choking regulations and legislation such as Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley.

There are weaknesses and omissions – for example, Gingrich does not call for the outright abolition of the police-state boondoggle that is the Department of Homeland Security – but all things considered, it is the sort of platform one expects from a serious, freedom-minded presidential candidate, and its enactment would be an appropriate denouement to a political cycle in which Americans awoke to the self-evident truth that their government belongs to them, not the other way around.

If Romney or Perry had the conservative instincts or policy understanding to advance such a plan, the Republican nomination, and probably the presidential election, would be in their pocket already. But they don’t, and that’s why we’re talking about Newt.

It has been suggested – not without reason – that the Republican Party often chooses its presidential nominee by asking, “Who’s next?” – as the 2008 runner-up, that’s Romney – or, even more cynically, “Alright, who’s the oldest guy here?” – which would mean Ron Paul (if you consider him a viable candidate), followed by Newt. Four years ago, John McCain was the answer to both of those questions.

But things never happen the same way twice. The system that clinched the 2008 GOP nomination for McCain, the day before yesterday’s man, no longer exists. In 2012, delegates will be awarded proportionally in primaries held before March 31, which means the all-or-none system that allowed McCain to wrap up the nomination by securing a plurality of support in early states is gone.

For Romney’s purposes, this means his 25 percent standing is insufficient to put the contest away early. The Romney campaign’s agitation to hold the initial caucuses and primaries as soon as possible may garner him some good press and fundraising momentum – especially if, as expected, he wins New Hampshire in a walk – but it will not make his nomination a numerical certainty.

This means it may be some time before the Republicans have a presumptive nominee. And so the rumpled, corpulent Newt, who can never seem to get his tie done up properly but simply will not go away, could trundle along to surprising success. Gingrich’s problems, of course, extend beyond wardrobe and body type, but that might be a good thing.

On the slight right, we do not lionize our leaders – at least, not while they’re alive (the modern Republican tic to idealize, and name everything after, Ronald Reagan represents a considerable shift from the rough ride he received while in office). So what if Newt is flawed and unlovely?

Go ahead, try to say Newt isn’t smart. Despite his glaring and public faults, the man is brilliant to beat the band. And not brilliant in the Barack Obama way – that is, you’d better say he’s a genius or we’ll call you a racist – but in the sense that he has comprehensive and novel ideas on just about every policy area (not all of them gems, admittedly), decades of legislative success, and, for what it’s worth, a Ph.D. in History lying around somewhere.

Of course, being brilliant doesn’t make one infallible. Brilliance and bad judgment can occupy the same space.

And Newt’s bad judgment is a matter of record: his three marriages, including acrimonious and unseemly divorce circumstances, his occasional flirtation with lefty notions, his canoodling with Nancy Pelosi in a unified effort to combat “climate change,” his tempestuousness, his misbegotten labeling of Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposals as “right wing social engineering,” and on.

Each of these is dreadful and, if revealed in the days before a key primary, or even a general election, might tip the balance. But all of this is already priced into the market for Newt. No one is perfect and, in Newt, Americans know what they would be getting.

And if there are, indeed, second acts in American public life, there would be a particular resonance to this one. President Bill Clinton tried to nationalize health care and failed, but the backlash to this attempt allowed Newt and his original Contract with America to claim the Congress for Republicans in 1994. The next Democratic President, Barack Obama, did manage to ram through a health care takeover, and so Gingrich returns, like Cincinnatus from the farm, with an even more comprehensive Contract, to restore limited government.

(Lest historically minded readers take umbrage, this column does not condone declaring Newt to be Dictator, as Cincinnatus was, nor do we expect he would relinquish that title after 16 days, as the Roman leader did; we’re just saying Newt would be an old guy making a comeback.)

For Gingrich, the current polling picture is a freak show. In a head-to-head matchup, he trails President Obama by a Real Clear Politics average of 15.2 percent – the largest such deficit of any Republican candidate – and from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina, there is no early contest in which he leads or appears poised to do so.

But available polls pre-date the release of Gingrich’s new Contract and, more importantly, reflect the mindset of Republican voters still Waiting for Godot. With the demurrals of Christie and Palin, along with those of some outstanding presidents America may never have – Jeb Bush, Mitch Daniels, Paul Ryan, et al. – the GOP recognizes that its choice most likely comes down to Romney or, well, someone else.

“I’m someone else!” was enough of a platform for Homer Simpson to get elected head of the neighborhood watch, but Republicans should expect more of their nominee, and America certainly deserves better from its next president.

So, given a binary choice between Romney’s anodyne remedies for a system of taxes, laws and regulation that is in need of comprehensive reform, and someone who purposes to make big and necessary changes, the decision should be obvious – or, at least, could become so in a protracted primary campaign.

Romney’s focus-grouped, peripheral tinkering – leaving corporate taxes far higher than those of America’s competitor nations, giving tax relief only on a class-targeted basis, etc. – is designed for no practical purpose other than to get him elected – and it may yet. But what the country requires is someone with the courage and wherewithal to overhaul the tax code, drastically reduce the reach of the federal government, and scare the holy hell out of Iran’s mullahs like no one has since, dare we say, Ronald Reagan.

Despite his warts, and in some measure because of them, Gingrich can do all these things. In this way, there may yet be a future for yesterday’s man.

Theo Caldwell, an international investor and broadcaster, has been a member of the New York Stock Exchange, the Chicago Board Options Exchange, the American Stock Exchange, and the Kansas City Board of Trade. He can be reached at