Doyle McManus: Newt takes his shot

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker running for the GOP presidential nomination, is trying to put some distance these days between himself and, well, himself.

Consider his statements on Medicare. Gingrich said this month that the reform ideas of Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) were “too big a jump” for the American people. But then he quickly insisted that he hadn’t meant to criticize the plan.

A decade or so ago, he supported an individual mandate on healthcare and was for cap-and-trade limits on carbon emissions, yet now says he wasn’t really for those things.


And last week, despite the fact that he’s lived and worked in the nation’s capital for most of the last 30 years, he told a group of Washington reporters over breakfast in a Washington hotel, “I’m not a Washington figure.”

Gingrich is caught between two roles, one that fits him well, another that doesn’t.

The role that suits him is that of intellectual provocateur and polemicist; Gingrich has always loved big ideas, and even now says he would rather talk about brain science than what he calls “the mundane details” of electoral politics.

The role that doesn’t fit as easily is that of presidential candidate. Gingrich has a hard time settling on an uncomplicated pitch to voters and then repeating it over and over. He is easy to get off message, largely because he can’t resist tossing out an opinion on anything. And that can ruffle feathers.

In his most recent gaffe — his denunciation of Ryan’s Medicare reform plan as “right-wing social engineering” — it was his own party that reacted with outrage, saying the comments gave ammunition to Democrats who want to paint the House plan as an attack on seniors.

“With allies like that, who needs the left?” said Ryan.

Even those who admire Gingrich see his flaws. “He really is a man with lots of ideas,” a former Gingrich aide, Rich Galen, told the New Republic recently. “The problem is you get 16 ideas a day; some of them won’t be benign.” And when you add into the mix Gingrich’s propensity for rhetorical excess, it’s no wonder he can sound over the top.

Cases in point: He has suggested that President Obama may be driven by a “Kenyan anti-colonial mentality” and called him “an irresponsible president who relies on dishonesty to hide his weaknesses.” He has written that the Democratic Party is dominated by a “secular socialist machine [that] represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.” By comparison, Paul Ryan got off easy.

Gingrich is equally prone to overstatement on the subject of his own virtues; he doesn’t waste time on modesty, false or otherwise. He calls himself “the candidate of ideas,” and told a reporter in Iowa that his presidential effort was “something that happens once or twice in a century.” In Washington last week, he said, “I will clearly be the most change-oriented, the most fundamental reform candidate in this race.”

But Gingrich has a problem: His campaign simply isn’t catching fire. He’s got massive name recognition, but more voters remember what they didn’t like about his tenure as speaker of the House than what they did.

So why is Newt Gingrich running? He believes in his ideas. He has a healthy ego — perhaps an over-healthy one. And he may hear his biological clock ticking. Gingrich will be 68 in June; this may be his last chance to run for president.

He wouldn’t be the first politician to reach a certain age and run for president whether his prospects look good or not. These candidates may not expect to win, but they’d hate to end their careers without having tried.

“I am definitely not the candidate of the Washington insiders,” Gingrich said proudly last week. That’s true if “insiders” includes the Republican elders who’d like to see an orderly campaign without more internecine bloodshed than necessary.

But here’s one member of the Washington press corps who hopes Gingrich stays in the race, and that he will let Newt be Newt.

He’s unlikely to win, because he’s still a walking time bomb. But this race could use a dose of excess, and Gingrich — whatever you think of him — gives us that. He’ll make the debates sharper. He may force other candidates who seek safety in ambiguity into more clarity.

The leading names in the GOP presidential field — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and (maybe) former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman — are all serious figures, but they’re also kind of bland. I’ll bet none of those guys ever ran up a half-million-dollar tab at Tiffany’s.