I don’t blame the sixteen political operatives who left the campaign of Newt Gingrich this week. Campaigns are tough, and it’s not just the candidates who sacrifice. Consultants and staffers work hard and long hours. Like Gingrich, many of his now-former advisers have spouses and children and bills to pay. If they perceive the principal isn’t willing to sacrifice equally, then leaving a campaign becomes a smart business decision.
But I don’t blame Gingrich for wanting to do things his way, either. It is, after all, his campaign. And the truth is, his decision to run a less traditional operation should come as no surprise; Gingrich has long rejected the conventional wisdom of political strategists and consultants. In 2007, for example, he said, “I think Republican consultants are mostly very stupid. I think they have no education. I think they have no sense of history.”
In a sense, Gingrich’s decision to do things his way is refreshing. He has never been a traditional politician, so why act like one now? The question is — will voters reward him for being different? Gingrich concedes he doesn’t really know the answer to that question, saying, “we’ll find out over the next year who’s right.”
It may not take that long.
William Faulkner famously quit his job as postmaster because (paraphrasing here) he didn’t want to be at the beck and call of every son-of-a-bitch who could afford a stamp. Gingrich, conversely, is essentially saying he wants to have his cake and eat it too — he wants the job, but isn’t willing to be at the beck and call of voters in the early states.
This means Gingrich won’t have to endure the humiliating (remember the glitter!?) ceremonial, perfunctory rituals of running for office. Instead, he will spend more time thinking and writing. He will spend more time with his wife. And the voters, he hopes, will reward him for running the 21st century version of a front porch campaign.
It’s not as insane as you might think. It may be apocryphal, but in 1960, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy reportedly spent the day of his big debate against Vice President Richard Nixon getting a suntan and resting. Nixon, on the other hand, reportedly spent most of the day rigorously campaigning (he also famously didn’t wear makeup). This story may be embellished, but there is probably some truth to it. And, of course, Kennedy — thanks to the advent of TV — “won” the debate.
A rested Gingrich might likewise perform well in Monday’s debate in New Hampshire.
But unlike a general election (where a big debate performance might help swing the election), glad handing voters in Iowa and New Hampshire is arguably more important than having big ideas or a great debate performance.
Campaigns can be successful even if they don’t ultimately lead to victory on election day, so it is possible Gingrich will succeed by infusing ideas into the debate and — who knows? — maybe he will even change how campaigns are run in the future. His refusal to play by the rules — and his insistence on doing things his own way — makes me think Gingrich’s approach is both admirable and refreshing. It also makes me think he can’t win.