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The Gingrich Gamble

Nominating Newt would be a high-risk, high-reward proposition for GOP

Think different: Is Gingrich the Steve Jobs of politics?(AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

photo of Josh Kraushaar
December 13, 2011

In reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, it’s difficult to reconcile the visionary icon Jobs became with the petulant executive who was ousted from his company. Jobs created a successful Fortune 500 company from scratch, but his erratic management style turned his own allies against him in a coup.

The stories of Jobs’s dysfunction at Apple during his first go-around were legend: He was arrogant. He insulted people. He was an idea machine and an implementation disaster. He clashed with the president he handpicked to run the company. His personal life was a mess. Sound familiar?

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Of course, the rest of Jobs’s story is well-known. He returned to the helm of Apple as a savior, and went on to become one of the most celebrated executives of our generation. News coverage in the wake of his death asked why we can’t have a president like Steve Jobs.

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Like Jobs, Newt Gingrich is a big thinker. He provided the intellectual groundwork to fuel the House takeover in 1994 after 40 years in the wilderness. He championed welfare reform and a balanced budget. But like Jobs, Gingrich’s lack of discipline caused chaos within the GOP conferences. Like Jobs, he saw allies turn on him.

And now Gingrich, after spending just over a decade in the political wilderness, is looking for a second act—like Jobs did, when he returned to run Apple 10 years after his ignominious ouster.

I make this comparison not to argue that Gingrich will get the nomination or defeat President Obama, but to demonstrate how short-sighted the conventional wisdom often can be.

There’s no doubt Gingrich would be a risky nominee. Obama is exceptionally vulnerable, and the most prudent pick would be a safe candidate who could make the election entirely about the president’s economic record. Gingrich is anything but safe, whether it’s his multiple marriages, his record as the only speaker ever sanctioned by the House, his self-centered disposition, or his sacrificing of conservative principle for profit in his post-congressional career. The list goes on.

But it’s also clear that he brings an intriguing upside to the presidential equation. He’s not afraid to mount a full frontal assault against Obama’s policies. The president’s health care plan is as unpopular as it has ever been, the economic stimulus law hasn’t achieved its goals and, he’s struggled to accomplish meaningful deficit-reduction or entitlement reform. A new Gallup Poll shows Americans fear big government much more than big business, by a substantial 64 percent to 26 percent. That would favor a nominee like Gingrich, who would aggressively paint the president as a big-spending liberal.

Gingrich’s positive assets include his ability to tout the conservative accomplishments of working with Bill Clinton to pass welfare reform and balanced budgets—an ironic twist, given the nasty, partisan fights between the two during the 1990s. But if Obama points to Gingrich as “the godfather of gridlock,” as his reelection team is hinting, Gingrich would be well-positioned to apportion blame right back at the president, contrasting his accomplishments with Clinton to the president’s lack of a relationship with current House Speaker John Boehner.

Republican primary voters have indicated they believe he’s an electable candidate against Obama, and some current polling bears that out. A new USA Today/Gallup poll shows Gingrich beating Obama in the 12 battleground states, 48 percent to 45 percent—just two points lower than Romney’s five-point lead. Gingrich would pose problems for Obama in Ohio and Florida, according to Quinnipiac polls released last week, though Obama holds a more-comfortable lead against Gingrich in Pennsylvania. (The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, released Tuesday night, shows Gingrich trailing Obama, 51 to 40 percent.  Obama's lead in the poll over Romney is just two points.)

The challenge for Gingrich is whether voters will view him as the ultimate Washington insider or an authentic change agent who learned from his time in political exile. To many voters, Gingrich’s tumultuous reign as speaker seems like ancient history. And the more longtime Republicans in Congress, party insiders, and the media criticize Gingrich, the more he comes across as an anti-establishment, independent operator. Voters have notoriously short memories, and if Gingrich can rebrand himself as a Reagan-like conservative promising fundamental change to a broken system, he could ride the anti-Obama wave.

But if he comes across as undisciplined and unstable, it could have devastating general election consequences.

Nominating Gingrich for president would be about as risky as asking Steve Jobs to return to Apple after building an undistinguished track record in his time away from the company. It’s a formula that could be a disaster, but carries the hint of success as well. Indeed, deciding whether to go with the safe choice (Romney) or gamble on Gingrich is the GOP’s real $10,000 bet this primary season.

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