Jacob Heilbrunn

Is Newt Gingrich Following In Nixon's Footsteps?

Can a new "Newt" emerge to win the Republican nomination? In an ingenious column in the Los Angeles Times, Doyle McManus speculates that Gingrich may be following in Richard M. Nixon's path. Just as Nixon transformed himself into a moderate candidate in 1968, so Gingrich is now refraining from partisanship. He's being nice to his fellow candidates in the debates. He shakes his head over the bad feelings in Congress.

Garry Wills diagnosed this phenomenon in his book Nixon Agonistes. He called it "compensatory counterstress." What he meant by that is that the temptation for rival politicians is to say almost the same thing towards the end of a race for the presidency. Wills was referring to the general election, not the primary. But Gingrich seems to be accelerating the model as he tries to tamp down his more ebullient pronouncements. In Confessions of a Conservative, Wills concluded that "the candidates middle in toward each other so energetically that they tend to pass each other and fall, rhetorically, into the opposite camp." They want to capture the "indeterminate middle"—what we could today call "independent voters."

Whether that will occur in the current partisan atmosphere is questionable. But GIngrich clearly is trying to sand off his rough edges as quickly as he can. There are many reasons to think that Gingrich could pull it off and an obvious one why he might not. Gingrich has the credential that is lacking in many of the candidates. He has been Speaker of the House and a true conservative. Herman Cain is a businessman. Mitt Romney is saddled with having essentially invented the Obama healthcare plan. Michele Bachmann is a fiery rabble-rouser. It's a field filled with eccentrics and a few serious candidates. The opening for Gingrich is there, and he's seizing it. The latest polls suggest that he's threatening Romney in what amounts to his home base of New Hampshire. A win there for Gingrich would surely administer a knockout blow to Romney, who is upping the ante in Iowa and appears to believe that he can nail down the nomination quickly. If he's wrong, then the GOP primary could well become even more cacophonous.

The stage would be set for Gingrich. But Gingrich's biggest plus may also be his minus. He talks a lot. He could probably out-talk Obama in sheer volume, dousing him with words like a fire hydrant that's been left open on a hot summer day. It takes a heroic effort for Gingrich to restrain himself.

McManus puts it this way:

Gingrich-watchers can only gaze in fascination, like spectators at a NASCAR race with an erratic driver who tends to run into walls.

"If history is any guide, he'll blow himself up," a former aide to President George W. Bush told me.

Back in 1968, New Nixon bested Michigan Gov. George W. Romney, Mitt Romney's father, for the GOP presidential nomination. But don't presume a similar story this time.

Gingrich is trying to engineer a turnaround in a matter of months. Nixon was methodical and diligent; Gingrich — Old Newt, at least — is mercurial and undisciplined.

But whether or not Gingrich lands the nomination, it seems clear that his rise is further testament to the ferment inside the GOP. If conservatives decide to hold their collective noses and vote for Romney, they will at least have had the opportunity to have voted for a different candidate. Perhaps that would tamp down the antipathy that is felt toward Romney in the conservative base. But if Gingrich wins the nomination, it will show that the GOP has decided to take a walk on the wild side. The fragility of the economy and the rage of voters towards Congress means that a Gingrich presidency should not be precluded. But he would be an audacious choice for the GOP to make. He represents everything Romney is not.