Newt Gingrich Can't Save the GOP

Newt Gingrich will add substance to the Republican field when he declares his candidacy for president, but we already have a professor as president—and the country is looking for something new, says Mark McKinnon.

05.09.11 11:09 PM ET

Out with The Donald, in with The Newt.

Newt Gingrich is unlikely to woo enough voters to win the GOP presidential nomination, but he is certain to make it more interesting. Gingrich is an idea factory, an organizational genius, and a prodigious fundraiser. His issues-oriented American Solutions “citizen action network” reports more than 2.4 million members. And according to The Wall Street Journal, Gingrich has “raised $32 million between 2009 and 2010—more than all his potential 2012 rivals combined.”

But Gingrich also has the whiff of “been there, done that.” And while he can produce an avalanche of substance and process and impress with his intellect, he rarely excites. Gingrich leads with his head and his mouth; great leaders inspire with their hearts.

We already have a professor as president. And voters rarely replace someone with someone like them. Why would voters replace a senior law lecturer with a history professor, albeit one with a Ph.D.? In tough times, the country hungers for something new. Think about how different Barack Obama is from George W. Bush. George W. Bush from Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton from George H.W. Bush. Ronald Reagan from Jimmy Carter. And Jimmy Carter from Gerald Ford or Richard Nixon.

Gingrich is not a new face, having served for 20 years in the House representing the 6th District of Georgia. Undeniably, he was the architect of the Republican Revolution—in 1994. That was a lifetime ago in politics. The 1995 Time magazine Person of the Year, Gingrich and his “Contract With America” helped to end 40 years of Democratic domination in Congress. Welfare reform, a balanced budget, and taxpayer relief were enacted under Gingrich’s leadership. But as speaker, he was the very public face of Republican opposition to President Bill Clinton, and he became a target for attacks. Though he was reelected for an 11th term, he fell out of favor within his own party and resigned his seat. Republicans then lost their way and ceded ground they only now are regaining.

A formidable and articulate intellect, Gingrich and his ideas are respected by many—even President Obama, who knowingly or unknowingly borrowed his “Winning the Future” slogan from Gingrich’s 2004 book title. And none of the other GOP declared or potential candidates has the breadth or depth of Newt’s knowledge. But he is prone to mis-starts and gaffes. The media will pillory him for paraphrasing author Dinesh D’Souza’s assessment of Obama’s “Kenyan, anti-colonial” mind-set and will ceaselessly challenge his moral leadership. Elections are about the future. And the GOP will not win a campaign focused on the past.

Elections are about the future. And the GOP will not win a campaign focused on the past.

The race for 2012 will be better for having Gingrich in it. He will raise the level of the debate. And at least he is taking the media attention off The Donald. (Can you say flame-out? Can you say “You’re fired”?) But dissatisfaction with the Republican field is so high right now, news reports Monday reveal that important GOP Iowans are making a pilgrimage to New Jersey to entreat Gov. Chris Christie to run. But until that big headline comes, here’s how things stand today in the Republican horse race (not my preference, just how I see it):

1. Mitt Romney: Still No. 1, but no juice and nowhere to go but down.
2. Mitch Daniels: If he gets in, he becomes the establishment candidate.
3. Tim Pawlenty: Everyone’s No. 2. Showing discipline as a candidate and real message focus.
4. Newt Gingrich: Serious player who will shake things up.
5. Mike Huckabee: He knows he could win primaries. He knows he’d probably lose the general.
6. Michele Bachmann: She could win Iowa. And South Carolina.
7. Jon Huntsman: Great general-election candidate, but can he navigate the primaries?
8. Rick Santorum: Strictly an Iowa play.
9. Ron Paul: Perpetual fly in the GOP ointment.
10. Buddy Roemer/Herman Cain: Though the media has ordained them as third-tier, if anyone ever actually sees these guys, watch out. It’s that leading by the heart thing.

On the other hand, we’re talking about a guy who engineered a political revolution in 1994. Maybe Newt can do it again. He is a great back bencher, and he can sure as hell throw grenades and make things blow up.

As vice chairman of Hill & Knowlton and Public Strategies, and president of Maverick Media, Mark McKinnon has helped meet strategic challenges for candidates, corporations and causes, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Ann Richards, Charlie Wilson, Lance Armstrong, and Bono. McKinnon is co-founder of No Labels and co-chair of Arts & Labs.