Six months ago, 16 members of Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign, including the team's entire top tier, quit because they thought he was not committed to the hard work of campaigning and fund-raising. His lack of focus was typical of Gingrich: intellectually vibrant and engaging, but temperamentally undisciplined. Today he leads most national presidential polls of likely Republican voters and is doing well, not just in conservative Iowa and South Carolina, but increasingly so in a state his chief rival, Mitt Romney, must win, New Hampshire.
Two weeks ago, the conservative icon the Manchester Union Leader explained why Gingrich has risen from the political dead to seriously challenge the once-presumptive GOP nominee. In its endorsement of the former House speaker, the paper wrote: "Readers of the Union Leader and Sunday News know that we don't back candidates based on popularity polls or big-shot backers. We look for conservatives of courage and conviction who are independent-minded, grounded in their core beliefs about this nation and its people, and best equipped for the job. . . . We don't have to agree with them on every issue. We would rather back someone with whom we may sometimes disagree than one who tells us what he thinks we want to hear."
Gingrich earned the Union Leader's praise in his stellar debate performances, where he has consistently communicated core conservative principles on a wide range of issues in a simple and direct style that evokes Reagan the communicator. He has also come across as the grown-up in the room by not being disagreeable simply to be noticed. Instead he focuses on content and refrains from speaking ill of fellow Republicans. And his occasional slap-down of media moderators demonstrates a selfless desire to defend all Republican candidates against biased "gotcha" questioning. Conservatives who were dispirited in 2008 by the weak John McCain and the unprepared Sarah Palin see Gingrich as a standard-bearer with the ability to fight and the will to win.
But before they consider the nomination settled, conservatives should reflect deeply on two questions. First, as per a rule William F. Buckley Jr. favored, is Gingrich the most conservative person with the best chance of winning in the general election? In terms of electability, any answer at this point would be speculative. Opponents cite as disqualifying baggage the candidate's infidelities in two failed marriages, along with a sometimes prickly leadership style and a two-decades-old House ethics violation, which led to a $300,000 fine. They also insist that Romney, not Gingrich, is the man to beat Obama.
Conservatives can be excused for not accepting this analysis as accurate or sincere. Gingrich's baggage may not be that heavy, though, because America respects redemption stories and does grant forgiveness in return for contrition. Gingrich has openly and frequently admitted fault and - more important - regret for his private failings, and a few public ones as well (the infamous global warming ad he made with Nancy Pelosi comes to mind). So if he is electable, this leaves the second question, which in the past has been of even greater concern for movement conservatives: Exactly what kind of conservative is Newt Gingrich?
His debate performances, media interviews, and stump speeches echo Reagan beliefs in limited government and free markets. But he of the fertile mind often strays from the Reagan ideal to notions of more robust government intervention. In this he is much like another intelligent, controversial conservative, Richard M. Nixon.
How else can one account for Gingrich's willingness to take money from Freddie Mac? He says that the $1.6 million the agency paid him was for work as a historian, not a lobbyist. "Rubbish!" say conservatives, who are dismayed that he would do anything to help the Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae duo. The right believes the two entities created a mortgage Ponzi scheme that nearly killed the economy in 2008. They fear that Gingrich, like Nixon (creator of the EPA and OSHA), is too fond of offering big government solutions to public policy problems.
Gingrich, the energetic thinker, mostly favors conservative limited-government ideas. Occasionally, he does embrace big government, and is not averse to displeasing his side (e.g., he criticized Paul Ryan's Medicare reform as "right wing social engineering," and he would grant legal residency but not citizenship to long-term illegal residents). But the past three years have softened conservative rigidity; conservatives will back anyone who can beat Obama. Gingrich may not be as consistently conservative as many would like, but he may be the conservative who can win.