By Michael O’Brien - 04/20/11 10:00 AM EDT
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) will have to run his presidential campaign much differently from the way he ran the House to have any chance of winning the 2012 nomination.
Republicans who served with Gingrich describe the Georgian’s leadership style as visionary and strategically adept, but also as unfocused — a trait that has doomed many presidential campaigns.
“He’s a guy of 1,000 ideas, and the attention span of a 1-year-old. His discipline and his attention to any individual thing is not his strong suit,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.).
Gingrich’s 2012 team is poised to run a campaign that will highlight his achievements, including the balanced budgets of the 1990s and welfare reform.
“If that’s what it will take to again get to a conservative agenda passed in the Congress, then please send as many 1-year-olds as possible, as soon as possible, to the Congress,” said Rick Tyler, the spokesman for Gingrich. “We can lose the battle of personality, but we won the battle of policy.”
While congressional Republicans won’t rule out backing Gingrich’s bid for the presidency (though many have declined to endorse him at this point), the early steps by the former Speaker have underscored concerns about his campaign and possible presidency.
Gingrich has maintained a quieter media profile since March, when, at the outset of military operations in Libya, he said President Obama shouldn’t have joined a military intervention there. Days before, Gingrich said he favored establishing a no-fly zone over Libya.
He also stumbled earlier this year when discussing his marital infidelity.
“He’s still the politician he was, with the requisite strengths and weaknesses he had in the ’80s and ’90s,” said Cary Covington, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa. “My assessment is that that puts him at a disadvantage in a place like Iowa, specifically, and for the Republican nomination, nationally.”
Tyler attributed any negative impression of Gingrich’s past few months to sloppy reporting and the former Speaker’s willingness to stake out positions on issues: “Whenever anybody takes a leadership role, they subject themselves to criticism. People don’t want to get beyond the sound bites and understand these complicated or nuanced issues.”
According to GOP lawmakers, Gingrich was a Speaker who kept close track of the day-to-day operations of the House during his reign between 1995 and 1999, a period during which Republicans passed a slew of major bills. But politically, Gingrich was weakened by ethics controversies and the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996.
Gingrich served as the “inspirational leader” for Republicans looking to retake the House in 1994, said former Rep. Bill Paxon (N.Y.), a member of the Republican leadership at the time who would later help organize a failed coup attempt against Gingrich.
Paxon described an exhausting pace, especially during the early days of the new GOP Congress in 1995.
“We would meet with Newt and say, ‘Look, this frenetic approach is counterproductive in a legislative body,’ ” Paxon said. “And unfortunately Newt would look at us and say, ‘You just don’t get it.’ ”
Republicans do acknowledge that Gingrich’s leadership style was also shaped by the unique circumstances of leading the first Republican majority in generations.
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) served during Gingrich’s Speakership as the chairman of what is now called the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which was tasked with investigating the Clinton administration. Burton and Gingrich sometimes clashed over the scope of the committee’s investigations, a phenomenon that wasn’t unique to the Oversight panel, according to Burton.
“I know a number of committee chairmen that felt like they were being, to a degree, controlled. And I don’t fault him for that kind of leadership,” Burton said. “But when you’re a chairman, you don’t like continually to be second-guessed and overseen.”
Gingrich was working without any blueprint of how to lead when Republicans won the majority, said Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), who was first elected as part of the 1994 freshman class that drove that year’s “Republican Revolution.”
Where current Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is much more hands-off and previous GOP Speaker Dennis Hastert (Ill.) drew on his experience as a coach, Gingrich’s background as a professor shone through during his time in charge.
“If you got in trouble with Gingrich, the assignment was to go do some reading. If you got in trouble with Hastert, you had to go run laps,” said Bilbray, who noted that Republican Conference meetings often started with reading assignments from Gingrich.
“I found him very accessible. The two or three times that I had legislation I wanted to get to the floor, he would work me in his schedule. Which hasn’t always been true since, by the way,” said Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), who noted he’s more of a fan of potential presidential candidate Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
Tony Blankley, who served for a time as Gingrich’s spokesman before leaving to become a pundit and now a senior vice president at Edelman, said, “I think he’d make a wonderful president. But every president has strengths and weaknesses. But a cool, calm, deliberate pace would probably not be his pace.”
Other Republicans said the most important thing for Gingrich would be to surround himself with strong advisers.
“He comes up with so many ideas, you need to have some filters around him to get the really good ones. Because his really good ones are great,” said Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.). “I think that would be key to him being president, to surround himself with those people who he would listen to, and were strong enough to do that give-or-take with him.”
“If I had to say there was only one shortcoming, and if Newt was sitting here I’d tell him the same thing: Pick the right people to do the job, and then trust their judgment,” Burton said.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), another member of the Class of ’94, acknowledged that Gingrich had “shortcomings” as a leader.
“I think Newt’s smart enough to be president, I think his heart is in the right place and he’s got the right kind of management skill. He could certainly handle the job,” Chambliss said of his fellow Georgian.
“He’s very, very talented, but I don’t believe Newt Gingrich will be the nominee,” said Burr, who said he wouldn’t endorse Gingrich.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), another player in the coup attempt, said in early March on C-SPAN that Gingrich is “probably not one that I would choose to support in a presidential primary.”
“I don’t think that the skill set he brings to the table is the skill set of a successful presidency,” said Paxon. “That being said, there is no doubt in my mind that he will be an interesting candidate, because he will come up with ideas and approaches that will be appealing to a certain segment of the primary.”
Team Gingrich, however, is content to point to his record as Speaker and let the chips fall where they may.
“There’s lots of things people can say, but I look at the legislative accomplishments for the country. I don’t know what motivates them to be critical,” Tyler said. “Gingrich has the single largest legislative achievement of our lifetime. He did that while managing, basically, 435 class presidents, the House of Representatives.”