op-ed

Newt Gingrich: One-term president

Theo Caldwell Investor and Broadcaster

On October 10, 2011, this column (which is an unnecessarily self-important way of saying “this guy”) anticipated the rise of Newt Gingrich in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Having presaged most polls and pundits, we (which is an unnecessarily self-important way of saying “I”) are (am) now prepared to dash whatever street cred our lucky call accrued by making an unnecessarily rash prediction: Newt Gingrich will be a one-term president.

Self-importance is significant to this exercise because if Gingrich does indeed go on to champion the GOP against Barack Obama, Americans will be treated to the World Series of Self-Importance, pitting a challenger who is pleased to tell you he has written 24 books, including 13 New York Times best-sellers, against a president who has written two books about himself.

And as for winning the presidency, Newt is quite capable of doing just that, notwithstanding the conventional wisdom that he would be a weak general election candidate. Elections are won or lost on contrasts and, between Obama and Gingrich, voters will have a clear policy choice. Plus, as a matter of simple arithmetic, if Newt is able to keep from falling far behind generic Republican polls and flip a few states back to the GOP column — Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Indiana and Florida, among others — Obama’s path to re-election becomes extremely narrow.

First, Gingrich must secure the nomination. For 2012, the GOP has eschewed its all-or-none system of previous cycles and will award delegates on a proportional basis for primaries and caucuses held before March 31. This makes it numerically possible that the nomination contest will go deep into the summer, perhaps even to a brokered convention. More likely, however, Newt will win in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, leaving little doubt that he is the choice of the party, encouraging other competitors to save their money, wrap up their campaigns and hope for cabinet posts.

Gingrich’s principal rival, of course, is erstwhile frontrunner and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. While Romney remains likely to win the New Hampshire primary, that should be his high-water mark, and America ought to be glad of that.

Romney is the Republican Al Gore: humorless, awkward, the son of a successful politician who can fill out phenomenal suits but never seems quite comfortable in his own skin. Further, just as the 2000 presidential election should have been a layup for Gore, Romney is losing a nomination that should be his because he badly misread the moment.

After seeing the face of government overreach these past three years, and recognizing that America’s economic condition represents an existential threat to the nation, Republicans yearned for a nominee who would take bold steps to make things right. Romney responded by playing it safe, making small plans and winning no hearts.

His tax plan, in particular, is timid and pointless. Romney would have corporate rates way up at 25 percent, considerably higher than America’s competitor nations, while leaving personal rates basically unchanged. As Newt has aptly pointed out, Romney’s proposal to eliminate capital gains taxes only for those making $200,000 or less will do nothing to spur the economy — filers at this level represent only 9.3 percent of capital gains revenue to the Treasury — and is actually to the left of Obama’s position.

Romney’s language betrays him. In a recent Iowa debate, he defended his insipid recipe by expressing concern that we “spend our precious tax dollars for a tax cut” that benefits the middle class. This sentiment sums up why Romney cannot be the Republican nominee. It is Democrats who characterize tax cuts as “spending.” Conservative Republicans consider cutting taxes to be, simply, letting people keep their own money.

At this point, the best Romney should hope for is to serve as Newt’s running mate, assuming Marco Rubio says no — and perhaps swing Michigan and lock up New Hampshire for the GOP, while doing no harm on the policy front.

So, with Romney dispatched to his well-deserved obscurity in private life or the vice presidency, how might Gingrich go on to defeat Obama, only to hand over the White House keys four years later?

Like so many men of consequence, Gingrich’s greatest qualities sow the seeds of his undoing. It begins with his world-beating intelligence.

Newt actually is brilliant, unlike Obama, whose genius is uncritically attested to by those who have heard it spoken of, or who choose not to contest the point for fear of being called racist. Indeed, Obama’s brilliance is much like global warming: Its existence is insisted upon by nasty people who stand ready to condemn you in the worst possible terms if you hesitate to agree.

Perhaps the browbeating over Obama’s alleged brain power informs some of the eagerness among Republicans to see Newt take him on in presidential debates. To wit, after generations of being lectured that the most leftward candidate is by definition the smartest, conservatives are itching to see a genuine heavyweight from their side mop the floor with a media-acclaimed poseur like Obama.

Gingrich is smart and he knows it. Obama merely thinks he’s smart because, well, Chris Matthews says so. Having learned nothing from the colossal failure of his statist policies, and now turning to class warfare as his campaign theme, Obama has gone from being merely insufferable to downright dangerous. His defeat is essential if America is to remain a country of consequence.

Obama has nothing new or helpful to offer, and this will become obvious in the debates. As is his wont, Obama will fertilize the landscape with garden-variety liberal notions that he thinks are profound, but which any Occupy Wall Streeter could recite without missing a beat in the drum circle, and Gingrich will respond with specific references, historical precedents and good humor.

Fair enough, then, let us suppose the Self-Important World Series ends in a Gingrich sweep, and Newt is sworn in as America’s 45th president. His downfall will not come at the hands of the adversarial left — angry hippies have hated him for 20 years and their complaints and chants practically write themselves. No, Newt’s presidency will be held to a single term by the behavior and dynamics described by Republicans who served under him as speaker of the House in the 1990s. Prominent among the many disaffected alumni of the Gingrich Revolution is Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who politely but damningly refers to Newt’s leadership as “lacking” and suggests he demands a higher standard of those he is leading than of himself.

Assuming that not all of those who have worked with Newt and now decry him are complete cranks — undoubtedly, some are, but that’s just the law of averages, adjusted upward for Congress — there is no mutual exclusivity between the masterful, often genial Gingrich we have seen in GOP primary debates and the ogre described by his former colleagues.

We all know the type. Some people come across very well during a speech or public appearance. Meanwhile, those who know them best recognize the reality to be a total freak show, complete with temper tantrums, disingenuousness and downright lousy behavior.

Some of this tempestuousness may, in fact, work in Newt’s favor, particularly on the foreign policy front. After the pre-emptive apologies, prominent bowing and unseemly prostration of Obama’s tenure, it might be healthy for America’s enemies to see a president who has little interest in their good opinion, and who just might be crazy enough to let the dogs off the chain.

But on a day-to-day basis, dwelling as the president does on the television screens of the nation, Newt’s disposition will become difficult to abide. The barely stifled anger, professorial condescension and notorious self-regard will begin to outweigh whatever good Gingrich is doing.

And Newt will be a very good one-term president — perhaps the best since James Polk. As speaker of the House, Gingrich was successful in balancing the budget, reforming welfare and allowing the private sector to thrive. But if that history is any guide, four years is more than enough time for Newt’s appeal to wear thin. All of us are who we are, and age, maturity, grandkids, what-have-you cannot change that.

In 2016, the Republican pool of presidential candidates will be deep and, with each bruising political or public relations fight, a 73-year-old Newt will be reminded that Rubio, or Paul Ryan, or Chris Christie, or Jeb Bush might be an excellent commander-in-chief. This notion will occur to American voters, too.

If he can enact even a portion of his policy proposals — repeal Obamacare, create a 15 percent optional flat tax, reduce corporate rates to 12.5 percent, eliminate taxes on capital gains, dividends and death — President Gingrich will serve America well. But not long thereafter, it will be time for him to go.

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 theo@theocaldwell.com