I have a friend who says she will never, ever vote for Newt Gingrich because of the way he treated his former wives. Newt's marital complications were an issue long before he declared his candidacy, and they will remain an issue as long as he's in the public eye. Marital complications did not hurt Bill Clinton, whose glib tongue, winning personality, and political skills papered over personal failings. Newt has none of those gifts, but what he has is a quick, card-file mind and the ability to articulate what's in it.
That, and only that, is why he was able to jack up his campaign from dead-in-the-water to major player. Conservatives pine for Reagan reincarnate, who can speak clearly and forcefully what they've always believed. Newt's performance last Monday (debate round No. 16) was stellar: I loved his exchange with Juan Williams on the value of work and his two-word summary of Andrew Jackson's policy toward America's enemies ("Kill them"). South Carolinians were so impressed they came to the next debate three days later ready to swoon. The wild cheers that accompanied Newt's counterattack on the media indicated that his growing ranks of fans were ready to overlook his infidelities, and his big win on Saturday in the South Carolina primary proved it. But frustration with the media shouldn't blind us to the candidate's very real weaknesses. Tearing into "despicable" behavior is a classic technique for diverting attention from your own despicable behavior. Remember who else was good at that? Bill Clinton.
"Mr. Speaker" is no longer Gingrich's former title; it's the place he's carved out on the Republican stage. The trouble is that Mr. Speaker doesn't know when to stop speaking, and the nomination process will grow to a point when he will embarrass us as much as he does us proud. Newt is very smart, though perhaps not as smart as he thinks he is. He's been instrumental in Republican policy, though perhaps not as instrumental as he claims. The volatility and grandiosity that Rick Santorum noted in the last debate is often painfully apparent, indicating another way that the Mr. Speaker is like Bill Clinton: It's hard to tell what's really at the center of Newt Gingrich, besides Newt Gingrich.
The greatest weakness of our electoral system is that the skills needed to win an election are not necessarily the skills needed to govern. The brilliance that maneuvered Newt Gingrich into the position of speaker of the House failed him when he actually tried to use that power. His term as speaker is a muddled record, ending with his resignation in 1998. Some people learn from their mistakes. But Newt's frequent missteps-his on-again, off-again attacks on Mitt Romney's Bain Capital (that came close to an attack on capitalism itself) and his grandiloquent claims that he has the nomination locked up-should all be warning signs. He's running for president of the United States, not president of the debate club.