Reinventing politics

During Newt Gingrich’s surge I was reminded that despite the egos in our little community, candidates count a lot more than consultants and staff. Gingrich languished at the bottom with his all-star team in place, only to rise without them. Meanwhile, they moved to Rick Perry, who promptly plummeted with the all-stars on board. I’m not suggesting a causal link, just that the ability of consultants to change the course of mighty political rivers and bend campaign steel in their bare hands is more than a little overstated.

Newt’s current slide imparts yet another lesson about candidates — to say they are important is not to say they are always right.

Gingrich told supporters he was out to reinvent politics, to run “a different kind of campaign.”

Part of that difference is its venality. Gingrich is using his campaign the way he used his political career — to make money. Campaign events are treated as opportunities to hawk his merchandise. A recent New York Times piece captured the essence of his uniquely mercantile campaign style in Gingrich’s response to a radio interviewer: “At 8:30 tomorrow morning,” Newt reported, “we’re going to be talking about jobs. … And then after the town hall meeting, Callista is going to be signing her new book, the New York Times best-seller, 'Sweet Land Of Liberty.' ... And I’ll be signing my new novel, 'The Crater, about the Civil War,' and a book on American exceptionalism called 'A Nation Like No Other.' ”

And don’t forget to buy a DVD.

Of course, that is not what Newt means when he takes pride in his “different kind of campaign.” He’s talking about eschewing TV ads and consultants, whom he labeled “stupid,” ignoring attacks and instead just trying to prove he is the smartest guy in every room, over and over. You see, said Newt, "Because I am much like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, I'm such an unconventional political figure that you really need to design a unique campaign that fits the way I operate and what I'm trying to do."

Candidates who claim they are “reinventing politics” usually lose. It’s like the scientist claiming to reinvent physics. Yes, very rarely it does happen. But for every Newton and Einstein, Faraday and Feynman, lab benches are littered with thousands whose reinvention amounted to nothing more than arrogance a la ignorance. There is a reason campaigns look similar, a reason most run TV ads, send mail, attack opponents, respond to attacks, organize, engage social media and get out the vote — it works. Innovation and creativity are often rewarded, but veer too far off the path and fall into a ditch.

In ignoring the attack ads disdained by his theory, Gingrich garnered support from a few political scientists who maintain negative ads are a “waste of money.” I respect academics, having once aimed for that lofty perch myself, and use their insights daily. But only someone who has never watched tracking polls fluctuate in a real campaign could say negative ads “don’t work.” They don’t always work — neither does chemotherapy, but you get it if cancer shows up. There are experiments and real-life situations monitored by these researchers in which negatives don’t work. But having witnessed their impact in hundreds of races, I can say with certainty Newt’s conclusion, and that of the academics he seems to rely on, is silly at best.

Iowa is a fertile testing ground for Newt’s hubris. The race is far from over and the polls far from reliable, but they certainly suggest that thousands of gross rating points of attacks are taking a toll. Gingrich shed eight to 14 points in Iowa since the barrage began.

Perhaps I’m too harsh, though. Gingrich may indeed have reinvented politics in one respect — he did figure out how to profit from his campaign.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.