UPDATE: That was quick-Gingrich bows out before he even officially steps in.
About thirteen years ago, when I was early in my senior year of college and it started to become clear that the Democrats risked losing their congressional majority, Newt Gingrich seemed like just about the scariest guy in the country. He had little positive to say about policy, but waged the sort of strident rhetorical war against the Democrats that has become commonplace in the years since but was pretty shocking at the time. He blamed Democrats and "liberalism" more broadly for everything from the seemingly stagnant economy to a woman, Susan Smith, drowning her small children. The media adored him, but to me his brand of unhinged demagoguery was reminiscent of Greg Stillson, the unhinged politician from Stephen King's novel "The Dead Zone," creepily brought to life in the movie by Martin Sheen, whose presidential ambitions, if fulfilled, would lead to nuclear apocalypse.
Though Gingrich won that November and became Speaker of the House of Representatives, within a couple years it was clear that I'd overestimated Newt and underestimated Bill Clinton, his great political rival. Clinton won re-election in 1996 and his Democrats cut into Gingrich's House majority. Two years after that, Gingrich had led the push for Clinton's impeachment but lost again in the mid-terms, and he resigned. For most of the next five years or so, he was perhaps best known for writing a shitload of amazon.com reviews, and of course for the revelation that at the same time he was leading the charge to impeach Clinton, he was also cheating on his wife with a much younger woman.
But like Clinton, Gingrich is both shameless and inexhaustible, and he set out to rehabilitate himself as a man of ideas and principle. As the collapse of George W. Bush Republicanism accelerated, Gingrich saw an opening: in the last two years, he's called for the Republicans to make a clean break with their president and look to the future. And if none of the Republicans who've announced for the 2008 presidential race would do that, then the man who once declared that his goal was "to save western civilization" would make himself available for the job.
In recent weeks, Newt has made it clearer and clearer that he's going to run for president. He's trying to raise $30 million to do it; he's cultivated James Dobson, the Christatollah of modern Republicanism, who's evidently more interested in a candidate who will hate on the gays and the slutty women than one who isn't a serial adulterer and hypocrite. Never short on ambition or ego, Gingrich still sees himself as a savior.
What's interesting to me, though, is that the man who rose to power on a wave of vicious attack politics and did so much to pave the way for political monsters like Karl Rove, now wants to run what sounds like the highest-minded campaign of modern times:
During a recent breakfast with a Politico reporter and other journalists, Gingrich made it clear he has given a great deal of thought to how he would run, starting with a national television ad that would be heavy on his policy ideas.
That might be followed with DVDs of his agenda to households in early-voting states.
Gingrich vowed that he would not participate in group debates like those that now sprinkle the campaign calendar.
“I’m not a penguin,” he said, referring to the field of candidates at the debates as “a row of penguins.” Instead, he said, he wants to hold one-on-one, 90-minute “dialogues” on such topics as fixing specific inner cities.
“If I did run, I wouldn’t do any dog and pony shows,” he said. “I’d debate anybody who wanted to for 90 minutes — one-on-one, for 90 minutes, in either party.”
Sounds good, no?
But here's the punch line: Gingrich's own legacy pretty much ensures that he's not going to get traction through this content-heavy approach. Consider you’re a TV network news division or a print/new media editor: given the choice between a detailed examination of Gingrich’s views on realigning tax policy to support inner-city entrepreneurship, or talking about how he was getting blowjobs from a woman a quarter-century his junior while trying to impeach Clinton for doing the exact same thing, which way are you likely to go?
Add in that he’s going to get shivved sotto voce by the many vicious scumbag Republicans who loathe him–like Tom DeLay, who led an unsuccessful coup against Gingrich in the mid-'90s-–and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy.
I’ve long considered the withdrawal announcements of Republican presidential contenders the way that other men think about pornography; when Newt hangs ‘em up, I might be incapacitated for days.