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Gingrich and the governance factor

By Julian E. Zelizer, Special to CNN
  • Julian Zelizer: With Gingrich running for president, questions arise about personal life
  • But, he says, Gingrich's weakness is the way he governed as Speaker
  • Zelizer: We want ideas, media friendliness, but day-to-day governance ability a priority
  • Gingrich has political skill, he says, but had trouble controlling his mouth and his party

Editor's note: Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter," published by Times Books, and editor of a book assessing former President George W. Bush's administration, published by Princeton University Press.

(CNN) -- Newt Gingrich has decided to run in the 2012 presidential race. The media instantly took notice. Gingrich is one of the more colorful figures in American politics, known for saying what's on his mind regardless of the consequences and for his willingness to court controversy.

The pundits immediately pointed to Gingrich's personal weaknesses. Many speculated on how his personal life might impact his viability in the Republican primaries. Others raised questions about whether he would be able to contain his statements on the campaign trail.

But Gingrich's biggest vulnerability has received far less attention: his difficulties in dealing with the challenges of governance when he was Speaker of the House. The minimal discussion about this aspect of his political life shows how we choose presidential candidates. We tend to focus on a familiar questions: What are their big ideas, how do they perform in front of the media, what kind of character do they have?

But we pay far less attention to another trait that is equally important in evaluating possible presidents: How will they do when confronted with the challenges of governance?

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To be sure, Gingrich displayed many political skills during his congressional career. In the 1970s and 1980s, he proved to be an effective congressional maverick who organized like-minded Republicans through the Conservative Opportunity Society. He caused havoc for the Democratic majority as well as senior Republican leaders who were too comfortable with the status quo. He was one of the first to realize that C-SPAN, which had a very small viewership, offered younger Republicans the opportunity to communicate directly to their constituents without reporters interpreting their words.

In 1983 and 1984, Gingrich and COS used the one-minute speeches at the start of each day and the longer "Special Order" speeches in the evening to attack Democrats for being weak on communism. The cameras showed only the person speaking, so the public had no idea the chamber was empty. When Republicans attacked Democrats for their positions on national security, and nobody responded, it looked as if Gingrich's opponents had nothing to say.

After Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill turned the cameras to show the empty chamber and embarrass the Republicans, Gingrich launched an attack, claiming that the Speaker had violated the rules of the House (which he did) and pointed to this as evidence of how the majority was corrupt.

In 1989, Gingrich, who had been elected the minority whip, spearheaded the ethics attack against Speaker Jim Wright of Texas and helped bring him down from power. Gingrich, said former O'Neill aide Chris Matthews, "has the political sensitivity of a Beirut car-bomber."

More than most politicians in this day and age, Gingrich has always been a man of ideas. Gingrich's thirst for intellectual debate has often been refreshing in an era when most of politics seems to be about raising money and running campaigns. Gingrich always offered a strong defense of conservative principles even as some of his colleagues cringed in fear of how his words might play in the polls.

He adamantly spoke about what he saw as the inherent flaws of welfare and called for a robust national security agenda. The "Contract with America" in 1994 was a slick document, published in TV Guide, that aimed to capture the attention of the media. But it was also part of a broader strategy in which Gingrich made conservative ideals the focus of the Republican midterm campaigns.

However, as Speaker, Gingrich showed many weaknesses in handling the responsibilities of governance. This record is more telling than anything else as to how he would perform as president.

First, he had trouble containing members of his own party. As he attempted to reach a budget settlement with President Clinton in 1995, the Republican freshmen refused to budge. The result was a government shutdown that caused a political backlash against the GOP. One top Clinton adviser, George Stephanopoulos, said, "The freshmen had become Newt's Frankenstein monster -- and my new best friend. The more they dug in, the better off we were."

Gingrich also had trouble keeping quiet and controlling his ego in front of the media when his role as a leader necessitated some silence. While he and the president were flying back from the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on Air Force One, Gingrich complained that Clinton had not come to the back of the plane to discuss the budget with him. Columnists and Democrats ridiculed the Speaker for being miffed about this. The White House released photographs of the two men speaking. The New York Daily News featured a cartoon calling Gingrich "Cry Baby."

In his final years as Speaker, Gingrich let the polarized political process get the best of him. As the historian Steve Gillon demonstrated in "The Pact," privately Gingrich and Clinton were working hard on a deal to reform the nation's major entitlement programs. Both men were interested in bipartisan negotiation and saw in divided government an opportunity for a deal.

But House Republicans instead focused on impeaching President Clinton based on charges stemming from his sexual relationship with an intern and his failure to acknowledge this relationship during a sexual harassment lawsuit that had been allowed by the Supreme Court. The investigation, and the poor showing for Republicans in the 1998 midterm, ultimately cost Gingrich his job. Clinton survived and ended his term more popular than ever.

While the job of Speaker is different from the job of President, his record should wave some red flags for Republicans who are sympathetic to his views

Gingrich's case is also an important reminder that in the coming year, voters in both parties need to look hard at how candidates will perform as political leaders, not just how they'll do on the campaign trail.

During debates and stump speeches, we want to know if candidates can inspire, if they can yell and scream, and what their big picture is. We also ask if they are the kind of people we would want to have a beer or a cup of coffee with.

Those are all fair questions, but we also need to know what they will do with the reins of power, whether they will be able to bargain and negotiate, whether they can adapt to the different media challenges that come with the burdens of power, and whether they can contain the political forces of Washington. Or whether they are likely to be consumed by them.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

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