By entering the presidential race on Wednesday, Newt Gingrich assumes the role of the most serious joke in the Republican Party.
If you look at the historical precedents for reaching the presidency, Gingrich is simply not positioned to be a serious candidate. He resigned from the last elected office he held, in the House 13 years ago. He has never won statewide office, held a cabinet position, or served in the military.
By contrast, every president elected in the 20th Century had previously served in the military, or held national or statewide office. Gingrich’s presidential path is not just unlikely—it is unheard of in the modern era.
Gingrich is a serious joke, however, because of the silly company he joins. The speculative GOP field is packed with green room performers (Trump, Bachmann), entertaining interlopers (Paul, Cain) and thin sequels (Romney, Santorum). Almost anything looks sober by comparison.
“Gingrich will add substance to the Republican field,” says former McCain strategist Mark McKinnon. That seems like the kind of faint praise that damns everyone in the equation.
McKinnon also stresses that Gingrich probably can’t win the nomination, but he will make things “more interesting” by being such an “idea factory.” (Who thinks this crop of Republicans needs to be more interesting?) McKinnon is not alone, either. Gingrich “is an idea factory,” another GOP official told the Washinton Post this week, “and Republican voters love him for it.” Majority Leader Eric Cantor, now second in line for Gingrich’s old job, has said that he solicits policy input from Gingrich because he is, yes, an “idea factory.”
The reputation didn’t come out of nowhere. Gingrich, who wrote a dissertation on Belgian education in the Congo for his Ph.D. at Tulane, always wanted to be an intellectual heavyweight. He has written or contributed to 17 nonfiction books, including a 2005 tome outlining an updated Contract with America called “Winning the Future,” a title that did not dissuade President Obama from adopting the slogan at this year’s State of The Union. (Joan Didion cooly demolished Gingrich's approach to nonfiction in a seminal 1995 essay, available in her book "Political Fictions.") He also coauthored eight novels of alternative history, including one imagining World War II if Hitler fell into a coma in 1941 (don’t ask), then got into the distribution side in 2007, launching a Gingrich-branded company to publish books and produce movies. Next month, for example, Gingrich Productions will publish a book by his third wife, Callista, that teaches children about American exceptionalism. It apparently builds on their film, “A City Upon A Hill: The Spirit of American Exceptionalism,” which—spoiler alert—features both Donald Trump and Michelle Bachmann. (Non-ironic trailer below).
Still, all this prodigous, profitable production has not only failed to generate a consistent political vision, it has failed to anchor Gingrich enough to avoid a steady string of substantive errors. Readers can recall his recent, blustery gaffes—from the capricious, irresponsible reversal on bombing Libya to his ineffable, patriotic defense of infidelity (“driven by how passionately I felt about this country”) to the penchant for governing by slogan (whether it’s “Drill, Baby, Drill!” or this incessant desire to renew America’s contracts).
Ultimately, that is the most disturbing part about Gingrich as an actual presidential aspirant: It always feels like the biggest joke whenever he tries to get serious. Now, let's all brush up on our American exceptionalism.