I’ve certainly had critical things to say about Newt Gingrich, but he proved again Monday night that he’s in possession of some of the greatest skills in American politics. Gingrich was the dominant figure in last night’s debate, in part because of his ability to create fairly dramatic moments, including his confrontation with Fox News’s Juan Williams. The former speaker was energetic, in command of the issues, and sent a jolt of electricity through the audience. He clearly owned the evening.
The South Carolina leg of the GOP campaign in some ways represents Gingrich in a microcosm. Last night we saw Gingrich at his best. But last week we saw him at his worst, leading an assault on Bain Capital (and the free market more broadly) that was terribly damaging to his campaign. Among other things, Gingrich’s approach earned him the praise of such liberal/left-wing stalwarts as the film director Michael Moore and AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka.
What makes Gingrich the most Janus-like figure in American politics today is his capacity to bring a conservative audience to its feet one moment while in the next he refers to Representative Paul Ryan’s budget as an example of “right-wing social engineering.” The former House speaker can present himself as the heir of Reagan one day while the next he attacks democratic capitalism in language so extreme not even Barack Obama would dare invoke it. Gingrich can articulate in compelling terms the philosophical case for conservatism in one setting and speak as if he’s philosophically unanchored in another. He threatens to fire any staffer who goes negative one day and accuses the GOP frontrunner of lying and looting the next. He can speak out about the civilizational importance of marriage as an institution while treating it with a good deal less care in his own life. He can quote Edmund Burke while being a devoted follower of Alvin Toffler.
There’s a pinball quality to what Newt Gingrich says and does, which makes him both a compelling figure and an erratic one. He’s a man in possession of some extraordinary gifts but whose defects in his temperament and character are at least equal to those gifts. As a conservative, he can’t help but impress you, often just before he unnerves you.