By Jefferson Flanders

November was the month of an ascendant Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House, suddenly became a serious contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. As Herman Cain’s scandal-plagued campaign faltered, Gingrich became the latest darling of anti-Mitt Romney conservatives. Many on the Right have remained suspicious of the former Massachusetts governor, questioning his ideological purity, and by month’s end Gingrich had vaulted into the lead in many national polls of GOP voters.

Campaign observers cite Gingrich’s debate performances, and his espousal of conventional conservative economic and social views, as sparking his recent rise. For the moment, at least, many Republicans seem willing to overlook Gingrich’s past marital troubles, his ethical troubles while in Congress, his Washington insider status and acceptance of “consulting fees” from Freddie Mac and health insurers, and his shifting positions on global climate change, immigration, and health care mandates. Conservatives looking for a champion of their limited government philosophy are attracted to Gingrich’s way with words.

I got a sense of that dynamic when I attended Gingrich’s appearance at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics on November 18. The former Georgia Congressman visited Cambridge along with his wife Callista to show their documentary (“A City Upon A Hill: The Spirit Of American Exceptionalism“) and to answer questions from the audience.

Gingrich’s considerable rhetorical skills were on full display at Harvard. He handled an initial “mic check” interruption by Occupy Boston and Occupy Harvard (“We are the 99%”) with a quick riposte that prompted applause: “I think we are the 100%. I think we are all Americans.” (The hecklers were quickly escorted from the event).

In his comments after the screening of the documentary, Gingrich sought to position himself as the logical conservative heir of Ronald Reagan. He summarized the case for supply-side economics: “Reagan had four pillars to his economic policy: cut taxes, cut regulation, develop American energy and reward, honor, and talk well of people who create jobs…the opposite of Obamaism which is higher taxes, more regulation, anti-American energy and class warfare.”

In brushing off a question about his ethics, Gingrich cited his government service and again echoed Reaganesque themes: “I’ve spent 53 years trying to bring smaller government, lower taxes, and promote strong American nationalism.”

In his Harvard performance, Gingrich lived up to his reputation as an eclectic, and often undisciplined, Big Thinker who likes to pepper his comments with historical examples (fitting for a former history professor). He happily opined on the European class system; Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 Cooper Union speech; how the Wright brothers succeeded in manned flight where a Smithsonian Institution effort, financed by Congress, had failed; the “introduction to politics among large primates” found in Frans de de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics; and the details of his late-in-life conversion to Catholicism.

Gingrich repeatedly promoted the idea that if he was the Republican nominee he would challenge Obama to three Lincoln-Douglas style debates focused on the economy, “American exceptionalism” (versus European-style socialism), and national security. His debate proposal is good primary-season politics: it reminds conservatives of the sharp contrast between candidate Obama and the rhetorically-awkward John McCain in the 2008 presidential debates. For those Republicans who don’t want a repeat performance in 2012, Gingrich offers a solution.

How much presidential debates will matter in 2012 is an open question. (I think the unemployment rate will be a more important factor). In any event, there is some irony in the situation. Will Republicans select as their candidate a supremely confident former legislator with an academic background, a fondness for lofty rhetoric, and a lack of executive experience? Strangely enough, they may. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?

Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

Reprinted from Neither Red nor Blue

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