Commentary

Gingrich Rise Is Triumph of Style over Substance

On the eve of Newt Gingrich’s landslide victory in the South Carolina primary, CNN’s Erin Burnett let the former speaker expound on the success of his “kick the moderator” debate strategy.

“I think there’s something going on here that’s very deep,” Gingrich said. “People want a leader who’s forceful… Part of it is, you know, if I’d said ‘The color is blue!’ — it’s the forcefulness… That delivery, that clearness is as important as the specific topic,” he explained.

Watching the interview, I had a disturbing thought: Has Newt Gingrich become self-aware?

I’ve never heard a better explanation for the former speaker’s ability to cloud conservatives’ minds. How, after all, did a man who’s the very model of a Beltway-consensus influence-peddler convince Tea Party voters he represents “real change”? It’s the “forcefulness,” stupid!

Unfortunately, what’s going on here is not “very deep.” Gingrich’s rise represents the triumph of rhetorical style over substance. In a way, it’s the ultimate tribute to Barack Obama.

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein asked a good question on Sunday: “What are Newt Gingrich’s big ideas?” “I’m at a loss to name even one,” he admitted.

Gingrich has an enviable rep as a one-man think tank, but in his wilderness years, he made a sweet living as a “forceful” pitchman for utterly conventional center-left policies: Medicaid expansion, the individual mandate, cap and trade, “clean energy” subsidies, and the like. Newt does a great impression of a red-state firebrand, but when it comes to policy, “the color is blue.”

That’s not to say that Gingrich has never had an unconventional idea. This is a guy who bragged in a 2005 GQ interview that “I first talked about [saving civilization] in August of 1958” — when he was a rising sophomore in high school.

Some of Gingrich’s big ideas are charmingly batty. Given his worries about global warming, Newt has probably abandoned his 1984 plan for “a mirror system in space” that “could affect the earth’s climate by increasing the amount of sunlight.”

But the Trekkie zeal remains, judging by one of my favorite recent headlines: “Gingrich Said Freddie Mac Could Be Good Model for Mars Travel” (Bloomberg, Dec. 2, 2011).

Gingrich’s rise represents the triumph of rhetorical style over substance.”

Some of Gingrich’s other fancies are less charming. The candidate who’s warned of a “gay and secular fascism” sweeping the country has an impressive authoritarian streak of his own.

As Klein notes, in 1996, Gingrich had the “big idea” of instituting the death penalty for anyone who brought more than 2 ounces of marijuana into the United States.

Today, Gingrich condemns the Stop Online Piracy Act as censorship, but in 2006 he supported empowering “federal judges who’ve served in combat” to shut down “jihadist” websites.

This December, he advocated sending U.S. marshals to arrest activist judges who rule against religious displays in public schools (maybe combat-hardened jurists will get a pass).

Say what you will about Gingrichian authoritarianism — at least it won’t be “gay and secular”!

At this writing, Gallup has Gingrich neck and neck with Romney for the Republican nomination. If he gets the nod, no doubt he’ll send a thrill up many a leg in the debates. But his odds of actually winning the presidency are slim indeed.

Recall that in 2004, after Obama’s GOP opponent for the U.S. Senate, Jack Ryan, imploded in a sex scandal, the party nominated Alan Keyes: another “forceful” debater with a weakness for loopy ideas. How’d that work out?

Keyes went on to run a short-lived cable talk show (the somewhat defensively titled “Alan Keyes Is Making Sense”) and a role as lead plaintiff in a birther lawsuit. Obama went on to the U.S. Senate and, in short order, the presidency.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power.