12.05.11

Good Newt vs. Bad Newt: Gingrich's Split-Personality Disorder

Now that Newt Gingrich leads the GOP presidential field, will the undisciplined bomb-thrower emerge to explode the surging campaign? Plus, David A. Graham on Newt's jaunt to New York City.

This is the position every sports team and political figure wants to be in: It’s the end of the regular season, you’re headed for the playoffs, and your future is in your own hands. No backing into the playoffs because another team lost (or another candidate dropped out); no waiting for some committee to place you in the most-favorable bracket or rank you against the other major programs. You win—you’re in. That’s what you aim for.

Against all odds and, some would say, all logic, former House speaker Newt Gingrich is heading the field as we get into the real voting season. Two weekend polls in Iowa showed him 7 or 8 percentage points ahead of Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.

If Newt can be the “Good Newt,” he can win Iowa, do well in New Hampshire, win South Carolina, and then it’s a free-for-all against Romney.

How does the “Good Newt” contrast with the “Bad Newt”? Where do I start? The Good Newt is focused, funny, and professorial. As a Ph.D. in history and former college professor, he likes nothing more than using a speech as a 45-minute syllogism: he states the problem, walks the audience through a set of facts and examples, then delivers the (now) obvious conclusion.

When he has thought about a subject, it is remarkable to watch. It’s not unlike Walter Isaacson’s description of Steve Jobs as being able to create a “reality-distortion field” that drew people into his view of what an iPod, iPhone, or iPad should look like and convince them that they could achieve his vision.

Gingrich can generate a reality-distortion field that covers 2,000 people in a hall and, like Steve Jobs, convince them that they should share his vision.

Paradoxically, that is also when the Bad Newt can rear his ugly intellect.

Last week he stated the problem: He is accused of being a lobbyist for Freddie Mac.

Gallery: Newt Gingrich's GOP Enemies
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He stated the facts: he made $60,000 a speech and was “selling” an increasing number of speeches.

Then he stated the syllogistic conclusion: ergo, he was making so much money from speeches there was no need to make money as a lobbyist.

It made perfect sense inside Newt’s reality-distortion field. But for the people in his South Carolina audience, it clanged. According to the Census Bureau, the median annual income for a South Carolinian family of four is about $58,000. Gingrich bragged about making more money in 45 minutes than a typical family in his audience made in an entire year.

Good Newt, meet Bad Newt.

On a tactical level, only Herman Cain’s minimalist campaign made Gingrich’s look flush with staff by comparison. A recent count showed Gingrich with a staff of 24 to cover Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida.

When Gingrich had no staff and no real campaign, he was the Good Newt. He could change his schedule from hour to hour—or have no schedule at all and simply use social media, talk radio, and Fox News to campaign.

Now that he will inevitably need a more complex organization, will we see the Bad Newt with his severely limited management skills reemerge, as we saw in the early days of this campaign cycle and in his tumultuous four years as House speaker?

Gingrich can generate a reality-distortion field that covers 2,000 people in a hall and, like Steve Jobs, convince them that they should share his vision.

When I worked with him, it was not at all unusual for Gingrich to spend days or even weeks developing a policy or legislative strategy, only to change his mind walking from the House floor across Statuary Hall to the speaker’s suite. This led to frustration and confusion among rank-and-file Republicans, who quickly tired of his management and refused to support him for a third term as their leader after the disappointing elections of 1998.

Newt has said people vote for president the way men shop for cars. A man will test-drive a Maserati, a Jaguar, and a Corvette. He will pronounce each of those rides excellent and would love to buy one, but when the time comes to write the check, he will drive off the lot with a Windstar because that’s the right vehicle for his family.

We will begin to see fairly quickly whether Republican voters see Newt Gingrich—either Newt—as the right candidate for their family.