Newt vs. Romney: The innovator versus the manager

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Eleven months ago, National Journal’s Ronald Brownstein summed up the dichotomy within the GOP primary as “populists versus managers.” With the Manchester Union Leader’s endorsement today of Newt Gingrich for president, we may finally be getting close to settling on one of each.

Upon reflection, though, the paradigm probably needs to be tweaked. Romney, to be sure, is the quintessential manager. And Gingrich has been known to embrace populist rhetoric. But if the race ultimately comes down to a Romney versus Gingrich campaign, a better way to understand it might be as “the innovator versus the manager.”

In this regard, a new book by Dr. Nassir Ghaemi — “A First-Rate Madness” — might clue us in to what we are witnessing today. After all, some might find the notion that Republicans would turn to Gingrich — with all his baggage — to be insane. But there is a method to the madness. During normal times, Ghaemi argues, mentally normal leaders — competent managers, for example — tend to excel. During times of crisis, however, more eccentric leaders actually perform better (think competent politician Neville Chamberlain versus the wildly eccentric Winston Churchill.) This calculus might explain Gingrich’s surge.

One can easily imagine that if the ship of state were on a fine course — if what one needed was simply a competent manager to steer the nation and make minor adjustments — Romney might be a perfect fit. But during times of crisis, normal thinking and normal leadership often fails. In these instances, the times call for someone who thinks big — or, at least — differently. In this regard, Gingrich — a manic eccentric who, like Churchill, spent time in the political wilderness — might have found his moment.

Gingrich and Romney couldn’t be more different. Gingrich questions authority, challenges conventional wisdom, and disputes premises. He also has fun. He is winsome. He can be undisciplined. He enjoys politics, and seems to gain energy from engaging in the battles. Romney, on the other hand, is  a consummate “adult.” He is highly disciplined. He plays by the rules, accepts reality as it is, and then — within those confines — sets about fixing things as best he can. Either governing strategy can work — depending on what the times call for. The argument, however, is that these times call for bigger, more radical, unconventional solutions.

Perhaps this is what Manchester Union Leader publisher Joseph McQuaid had in mind when he wrote: “America is at a crucial crossroads. It is not going to be enough to merely replace Barack Obama next year. We are in critical need of the innovative, forward-looking strategy and positive leadership that Gingrich has shown he is capable of providing.”

Matt K. Lewis