Whether his recent rise in the polls is lasting or not, Newt Gingrich has already shifted Campaign 2012 for the better. The feisty former speaker of the House has reminded us through his debate performances that knowledge is an important part of a president’s work.
That a president must know something seems obvious. But our nation’s opinion writers (myself included) have often ranked knowledge behind a candidate’s character, electability or even, simply, novelty. And in the past voters have often done the same.
Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980 was all about character -- his biographer, Peggy Noonan, even titled her book “When Character Was King.” Reagan was supposed to be a good executive precisely because he didn’t waste his time on details; he sized up a situation and did what he thought was moral. In every campaign, character is a recurring theme. James Fallows of the Atlantic argued in 2004 that “presidential debates always put more importance on projecting character than on being right.”
Electability also mattered in the past, and we prized candidates with established constituencies. It was good to be (R., Ohio) but there was little value in being (R., Knowledge). The circularity of the pundits’ argument -- “you must elect Mr. X because he is electable” -- wearied everyone, but was routinely reinforced by marketing professors who taught that “perception is reality.”
Novel candidates were traditionally appealing because, being outsiders, they were likely to have more character than those corrupt insiders of Washington. Or so the received wisdom went. Hence the Sarah Palin craze in 2008, when pollsters such as Rasmussen published headlines like: “Palin Power: Fresh Face Now More Popular Than Obama, McCain.”
The Insider’s Insider
Gingrich doesn’t project electability or character in the sense we usually mean. “Character” is what you want your daughter to marry. You don’t want your daughter to marry Newt. Nor does he have the purity of inexperience -- Gingrich isn’t like Palin or Herman Cain. He’s an insider’s insider, with all the dirt and baggage that connotes.
But Gingrich does project a terrifying authority of policy knowledge. Voters have been warming to Gingrich because he’s right -- about the budget, about Social Security reform, about plenty of other substantive themes he’s elaborated on since the debates began.
Gingrich’s responses are filled with fresh ideas and concrete examples. In a recent debate in Texas, Gingrich and Cain each showed some fluency in talking about Medicare. But when Cain was asked whether he preferred a defined-benefit plan or premium supports for Medicare, he smiled and passed the ball. Gingrich clarified what a defined benefit was -- a mandate for government to pay for health care -- and then highlighted the kind of triage that happens when government gets involved in the medical system, focusing on the danger that those with aggressive prostate cancers would be fatally undertreated.
In debate after debate, Gingrich has displayed commensurate expertise. And voters value that so much that Gingrich now stands, with 22 percent support, on the top of the Gallup poll among registered Republicans, even above Mitt Romney.
What happened? Not long ago, everyone was sure that Gingrich’s geekiness and personal baggage were fatal. That was how Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, the only candidate who could compete with Gingrich on the budget details, went down. Daniels withdrew after it became clear that a) he was probably too wonkish and b) he was deemed to have “baggage” because his wife had once left him, even though she came back. (Daniels officially cited family reasons for declining to run.)
What happened was that times changed -- and in ways that “the establishment,” as Gingrich calls it, reviving an old label, hasn’t yet absorbed. The policy stakes are higher now than they were in the last election. If we don’t sort through our fiscal troubles fast, the U.S. will look like Greece. If we don’t figure China out fast, it may become our next great enemy. And the paralysis in Washington is only intensifying.
Voters’ support of Gingrich is their way of talking back to the opinion-makers. They’re tired of being told by pundits what to think.
“This time voters want someone who can work the solutions to the intractable problems,” Douglas Schoen, the author and pollster, told me. “This time they also like that someone is taking on the media, precisely because taking on the prognosticators means you can take on Washington.”
Of course, in coming weeks, the word “electability” may still drown out Newt’s candidacy. Nonetheless, Gingrich’s prominence has changed the terms of debate. If he’s viable, why not someone like Daniels? Why not Representative Paul Ryan, the Republican from Wisconsin who has produced the most thorough reform plans in the party? Both Daniels and Ryan have said they won’t run, but one suspects that they’re hesitating because consultants told them they weren’t electable. The pollsters and opinion writers need to start reframing their questions.
If the pundits insist that geeks are unelectable, and continue to drive them from the race, voters should start asking: Who elected the pundits?
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