Daum: Newt’s debt to Clinton
So it’s official. No one really cares that Newt Gingrich is an egotistical, vainglorious scoundrel, at least where women are concerned. Sure, his ex-wife went on TV two days before the South Carolina primary and re-dished a bunch of dirt about their marriage, but based on Saturday’s outcome, it seems GOP voters got over the whole family values thing a long time ago.
At the very least, it seems that unapologetic combativeness is proving a more effective campaign strategy than bragging about the longevity of your marriage or releasing enviably wholesome family portraits. Otherwise, Mitt Romney, who’s been married for 42 years and whose family photos look like the ones that come in picture frames when you buy them at the store, would still be coasting his way to the nomination.
In fairness, Gingrich has been in wedlock for roughly 50 years — just not to the same woman. His three marriages essentially overlapped, suggesting he has a real affinity for the institution. (Never mind that, given his alimony payments, wedlock didn’t protect him from financial strain, despite Rick Santorum’s claims that it’s a surefire way to financial stability.) Still, Gingrich knows his audience. He understands what his cleaner-living opponents often either forget or refuse to recognize: When it comes to things like avoiding teen pregnancy, lowering the divorce rate and encouraging people to get their acts at least mildly together before getting hitched, talking the talk can actually be more important than walking the walk.
In fact, Gingrich understands that walking the walk can in fact make a candidate seem “unrelatable” to ordinary voters. More appealing are candidates who have sinned and sought redemption, who have wrestled with their dysfunctions and come out no worse for the wear — or at least not too embarrassed to carry on in public life. This may be especially true in red states, where rhetoric about traditional family values tends to run in inverse proportion to their actual implementation. Census and voting data have consistently shown that rates of divorce and teen pregnancy are higher in Republican-voting red states than in more liberal-leaning blue states, which helps explain why Bristol Palin’s pregnancy in 2008 didn’t torpedo the McCain/Palin campaign the way a lot of liberals assumed it would.
But the tendency of red state voters to be more forgiving of a certain level of dysfunction is not all that’s working in Gingrich’s favor. There’s also the fact that most Americans — “values voters” or not — have pretty much accepted that being a good spouse is not necessarily a requirement for being a good president.
It’s not that we wouldn’t prefer a leader whose family life fits the all-American myth. It’s just that we have scandal fatigue. We may no longer have the patience or the appetite for the kind of politics that cares more about the sexual dalliances of consenting adults than the betterment of the people. And the orchestrator of this fatigue is none other than Gingrich himself.
Gingrich’s hammering away at Bill Clinton in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky affair played a role in getting the president impeached, but in the end it also won Clinton a generous dose of sympathy. The president left the White House with a 65% approval rating, the highest exit rating in more than 50 years (he even beat Ronald Reagan.) Sexual escapades have ended political careers since then (see John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner), but the public seems to have figured out what it will put up with. Herman Cain’s campaign, for instance, might have withstood infidelity alone; the multiple harassment charges were what did him in.
It would be giving Gingrich too much credit to suggest that planting the seeds of scandal fatigue back in 1998 was all part of an evil plot to make the public so indifferent to loutish behavior that the biggest lout of all stood a chance of winning the GOP nomination in 2012. Still, as he continues his cavalier journey along the campaign trail — explaining his behavior with redemption narratives or trying to change the subject by blaming the media — it’s worth noting that the trail was paved by the legendary unsinkableness of the man he was obsessed with pillorying: Bill Clinton.
And as we pay perverse tribute to that legacy by overlooking the explosive items in Gingrich’s personal baggage, it also might be worth sending him the following memo: You, sir, are no Bill Clinton.