Thursday, January 26, 2012

Gingrich Can Handle the Press, But He Is No Reagan

At the moment, I have no real dog in the fight for the Republican nomination, other than a realpolitik conclusion that Romney has the nomination sewn up (unless the oft-quoted mutatis mutandis of Bill Buckley comes to bear).  I watch the debates to see the sometimes staggering progress that is made to that end, and I continue to see Romney’s confidence (though sometimes shaken a bit, such as his inexplicable bewilderment in his response to Rick Perry’s inquiry into his taxes), Santorum’s sincerity, and Ron Paul’s blathering.  Then there is Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich almost consistently gives an entertaining performance and shows a deft understanding of political stagecraft.  He is sure to deliver a broadside to the press, much to the glee of the Republican audience, and he was a sure bet early on to remind the crowd that the main purpose of the campaign was to unseat Obama, rather than pander to the MSM’s very real attempts to skip the issues in favor of encouraging the candidates to attack each other, or try to ‘expose’ the candidates’ quaint outside-the-beltway views.  In this respect, he has been a real crowd pleaser when he took on Politico’s John Harris (who was leaning forward, eyes wide, finger jabbing, practically salivating in his disappointment that they weren’t arguing more), ABC’s Diane Sawyer (whose “loving, committed, long-term relationships” for gays question was turned into an exposition by Gingrich on examples of “anti-Christian bigotry” left unexplored in the press), CBS’ Scott Pelley (with his insufferable arrogance as he tried to frame a scornful rebuke about the “rule of lawww” in the form of a question about attacking terrorists), or Fox News’ Juan Williams (with the race card inserted into questions about food stamps and school work programmes).  But despite the timing and manner of how ABC put together the interview with Gingrich's ex-wife Marianne, I believe that John King was correct in asking Newt about the interview, though not perhaps as the lead question.  It was news, no matter how it came to the screen, and Gingrich was going to have to address it.

(George Stephanopolous sparred with Romney instead of Gingrich about the ridiculously drawn-out hypothetical of the states’ capability of banning contraceptives, but it was an example that proved the point.)

But just as I have condemned this attempt by the media to turn the Republican campaign into a political version of ‘American Idol’, that same criticism applies to the Gingrich role in the process.  Once we get past all the debates, we have to have a leader who can forge a working relationship with Congress, and inspire Americans to the hard work and sacrifice of returning the country to its rightful place as that ‘city on a hill’.

Throughout the process, another Gingrich standard is to cite how both he and Ronald Reagan were practically joined at the hip in taking down the Soviet Empire.  This has never quite set well with me, as I can remember times when Gingrich was at his disparaging best about Reagan holding firm to his tactics in confronting the Soviets.  I could not remember exact instances of that though, and I hardly knew where to start in trying to track down some examples.

I was relieved, then, with the contribution of Elliot Abrams in National Review Online with an article that takes on the question, and not in favour of Gingrich.

The claims are misleading at best.  As a new member of Congress in the Reagan years – and I was an assistant secretary of state – Mr. Gingrich voted with the president regularly, but equally often spewed insulting rhetoric at Reagan, his top aides, and his policies to defeat Communism.  Gingrich was voluble and certain in predicting that Reagan’s policies would fail, and in all of this he was dead wrong. . . .
The best examples come from a famous floor statement Gingrich made on March 21, 1986. . . .  Here is Gingrich: “Measured against the scale and momentum of the Soviet empire’s challenge, the Reagan administration has failed, is failing, and without a dramatic change in strategy will continue to fail. . . . President Reagan is clearly failing.”  Why?  This was due partly to “his administration’s weak policies, which are inadequate and will ultimately fail”; partly to CIA, State, and Defense, which “have no strategies to defeat the empire.”  But of course “the burden of this failure frankly must be placed first on President Reagan.”  Our efforts against the Communists in the Third World were “pathetically incompetent,” so those anti-Communist members of Congress who questioned the $100 million Reagan sought for the Nicaraguan “contra” rebels “are fundamentally right.”  Such was Gingrich’s faith in President Reagan that in 1985, he called Reagan’s meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.”
Gingrich scorned Reagan’s speeches, which moved a party and then a nation, because “the president of the United States cannot discipline himself to use the correct language.”  In Afghanistan, Reagan’s policy was marked by “impotence [and] incompetence.”  Thus Gingrich concluded as he surveyed five years of Reagan in power that “we have been losing the struggle with the Soviet empire.”  Reagan did not know what he was doing, and “it is precisely at the vision and strategy levels that the Soviet empire today is superior to the free world.”
There are two things to be said about these remarks.  The first is that as a visionary, Gingrich does not have a very impressive record.  The Soviet Union was beginning to collapse, just as Reagan had believed it must.  The expansion of its empire had been thwarted.  The policies Gingrich thought so weak and indeed “pathetic” worked, and Ronald Reagan turned out to be a far better student of history and politics than Gingrich.
The second point to make is that Gingrich made these assaults on the Reagan administration just as Democratic attacks were heating up unmercifully. . . . It appears to be a habit: He did the same to George W. Bush when Bush was making the toughest and most controversial decision of his presidency – the surge in Iraq. . . . Here again Gingrich provided no support for his party’s embattled president, testifying as a private citizen in 2007 that the strategy was “inadequate,” contained “breathtaking” gaps, lacked “synergism” (whatever that means), and was “very disappointing.”

 This frequent connection of Gingrich to the great Ronald Reagan has rankled me, in much the same way as I react to Michael Reagan: a nice enough guy, I suppose, but someone whose career owes a great deal to his inability to string more than two sentences together without somehow making reference to the fact that Ronald Reagan was his father.

At the risk of paraphrasing Lloyd Bentsen (Lyndon-esque in his approach to back room politics, and no, he wasn’t a friend of John F Kennedy), Gingrich is no Reagan.

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