The Republican convention is starting to look like The Expendables 3. Like Sylvester Stallone, who actually looks spry for a man of 66, every would-be action hero from GOP yesteryear will try to pretend they are still cutting edge, rather than reminders of a Republican past toward which voters are rather lukewarm. John McCain and Condi Rice, those two fresh faces who collectively have been in politics longer than Kristen Stewart has been on earth, will lead off the series. You can be sure to see a cameo from some of the Bushes, while the more controversial W. will be safely off to the sidelines.
And then there is Newt Gingrich. Yes, he is back too, soon to be unleashed on President Obama by the Romney campaign. Unlike the prior crowd – pleasant-sounding moderates who undoubtedly have polled well among independent voters – Newt is nobody’s idea of a middle-of-the-roader, a team player who says all the right things and never offends. But the Romney campaign needs Newt, and that says it a lot. For Gingrich has the one thing that Republican nominee still lacks: ideas, passion, drive, and an ability to harness a message and tie it to real things. Well, I guess that’s more than one thing – but Romney needs them all.
Say what one will about Newt , whose campaign I served briefly as an advisor: he is a man who likes ideas. This, of course, was part of his problem as a candidate in the age of the talking point. During the Republican primaries, Governor Romney could go on stage, stand precisely at the marker behind his podium where his aides have positioned television cameras, recite five or six lines about the subject matter of the moment, and then repeat those same lines ten times that day to reporters. Newt by contrast would never be told where to stand. In his hardscrabble campaign, there might not even have been a podium ready to welcome him. Aides could suggest a dozen lines to him, urge or plead with him to say just one, and then go to their television sets to see what might happen.
Sometimes Newt would say the lines, and sometime he wouldn’t. In either case, he’d say many others. He’d muse about whatever caught his attention, like building a lunar colony while talking to NASA employees in Florida. It’s a sad commentary on politics today that this is considered a deficiency in a candidate like Gingrich. How dare he keep his own counsel, have his own ideas, many of them in fact, and try them out for the American people to see what worked and what they found a reach? The political culture and, it must be said with sorrow, the voters are much more comfortable with Power Points and parrots.
On his best days, however – and there were enough of them to win the South Carolina primary and for a moment at least come close to dismantling the Romney coronation – Newt could summon a passion among voters for which Mr. Romney still struggles. This is not because Newt is necessarily smarter than Mitt. It’s not because he is better looking, or more charming, or nicer, or more well-mannered. (Mitt Romney is so well-mannered you almost expect him to raise his hand before answering reporters’ questions.) And the reason is not even because Newt, who held public office five times longer than Romney, is a better politician. Newt had his moments for a simple reason: he knew who he was. Like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton before him, he was a politician who was not haunted by his flaws. George W. made fun of his reputation as a lightweight. Clinton winked and nodded about his character flaws and kept on talking. In the book Game of Thrones, the dwarf Tyrion Lannister advises the “bastard” Jon Snow to embrace his label. “Never forget who you are, for surely the world will not,” he says. “Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness.”
Despite his best efforts to say all the right things, there is evidence that Governor Romney’s tepid favorability ratings continue to droop, as the Obama campaign makes every effort to portray him as a passionless, even heartless, rich guy. And that is exactly how Romney appears, every time he goes before a camera and says whatever the consensus among his advisors is for that day. There are people who actually love Mitt Romney – it’s a small number, limited to those who know him best – and who undoubtedly do not recognize the caricature that is slowly emerging. Nobody can honestly say that the Newt Gingrich the public saw – smart, curious, mercurial, impulsive, passionate, and yes, sometimes his own worst enemy -- was someone they didn’t recognize. And that’s the help Newt can provide the Romney campaign – to show his once bitter opponent how to be at least a little more like the man he actually is. Whoever that may be.