Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Gingrich Paradox: "Searching" as Minority Leader and as a Presidential Candidate

Newt Gingrich is trapped in a political paradox that simultaneously animates and undermines his search for the presidency.

Gingrich's political standing is built on his assault on the Democratic House majority that culminated in 1994. Backed by The Contract with America, Republicans achieved a majority in the House for the first time since the Eisenhower administration. It was a tremendous achievement, due, in no small part, to Gingrich's decades-long efforts to identify a set of policy proposals that could win a national electoral victory over the incumbent Democratic majority.

Gingrich is a perfect leader for a minority party, especially a minority party with dim prospects for near-term success. He has an apparently boundless capacity for generating endless streams of policy proposals and a knack for shuffling and reshuffling them into clever-sounding packages (the conservative opportunity society, Contract with America, winning the future). He is, in essence, some kind of human search algorithm programed to find a policy platform that can defeat the incumbent party's status quo in a complex policy space.

This is obvious a valuable skill for the leader of a legislative party in the "wilderness." Each iteration of a Gingrich "search" for the winning platform is, in some respects, costless. The party is in the minority in a majoritarian institution, so marginal changes in the size of its minority are not especially important. As a minority leader, Gingrich can experiment over and over again until he finds the right platform, which can then be presented by locally attractive candidates in each district rather than by the prickly Gingrich himself.

The situation is obviously very different for a presidential candidate entering a race that is likely to be incredibly competitive. Republicans don't need a Gingrich search to be competitive in 2012. Sure, Gingrich's propensity for trying out new ideas might yield an alternative that defeats Obama, but it might also lead to a runaway Obama victory in a race that should have been tight. Alternatively, a candidate more committed to a set of standard conservative policy prescriptions starts off and ends in a statistical tie with Obama. The choice for GOP voters then becomes a choice between a close, winnable contest, and a long-shot lottery that hinges on Gingrich's propensity to identify a winning alternative. If a Gingrich search is less that 50% reliable (give or take), it's a bad bet in this electoral climate.

Gingrich's problem then is his fundamental riskiness. Many GOP primary voters sense Gingrich's volatility and shy away from investing in him when predictable short-run returns are much more important than the chance of a big, one-shot payoff somewhere down the road. In the end, the same thing that makes Gingrich competitive in the Republican primary---his achievement in leading the Republican Party to a House majority in 1994---was motivated by precisely the same personal qualities that work against him as a presidential candidate.

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