Newt's Campaign of "Ideas"

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(Flickr/ajagendorf25)

Today is the day that Newt Gingrich enters the presidential race, and Walter Shapiro challenges the conventional wisdom that Newt stands no chance of winning. It's not an unreasonable case he makes, but I must object to this:

What Gingrich has going for him is that presidential elections are about something beyond gauzy biographical ads and rehearsed debate one-liners. "We're in the personality phase of the campaign," says Republican pollster David Winston, who worked for Gingrich when he was House speaker. "But eventually it's going to move from personality to policy. GOP voters are going to ask, ‘What are your solutions to fix the nation’s problems?' And that is the moment that plays to Newt’s greatest strength."

Ah yes, the policy phase of the presidential primary campaign, in which voters pore over position papers and delve deeply into the wonky details. Sorry -- the entire presidential campaign is "the personality phase of the campaign."

That's not to say policy doesn't matter. It does, but only insofar as it reflects on personality. As TAP's former editor Mark Schmitt famously put it way back in 2004, "It's not what you say about the issues; it's what the issues say about you." To take a classic example, John McCain's advocacy of campaign-finance reform was politically effective for him not because voters cared about campaign finance reform (they didn't), but because it told a story about him as a maverick reformer.

As it happens, this plays perfectly to Newt's strength. He works extremely hard to portray himself as a visionary man of ideas. If you pay attention to politics, you know this about Newt. But ask yourself: Can you name one of these visionary ideas? A couple of weeks ago, I flipped my car radio to C-SPAN radio (yes, people like me do that sort of thing), and I listened to a speech he gave on health care. In about every third sentence, he used the term "fundamental transformation" or some variant thereof. He seemed to be working without a prepared text, yet it was as fluid as can be. It was all future-y and visionary and fundamental and transformative, and after listening to it, I couldn't tell you a single thing he actually wants to do about health care. What Newt's "ideas" lack in depth, they make up for in rhetorical flourish and sheer volume; by the time you've asked, "What the hell did he just say?", he's moved on to three other fundamental transformations of society and government he wants to usher in, none of which have any substance to them, either.

But that matters not a whit. Newt will campaign as the guy with visionary plans for the future (and this will probably help render his age, 68, a non-issue; unlike John McCain, he doesn't come across as a grumpy old man telling you to turn down your blasted rock music and get off his lawn). He'll be the ideas guy. No one will know what those ideas are, and no one will really care.