Newt Gingrich speaks to supporters after winning the South Carolina primary.
Newt Gingrich speaks to supporters after winning the South Carolina primary.
PHOTO: Getty Images

Story highlights

David Frum: Newt Gingrich is a man of grandiose enthusiasm for divisive rhetoric

He says Gingrich stresses points that score on talk shows but fail to address real issues

Frum: Many who have worked with Gingrich don't think he can be trusted with executive power

He says Gingrich is one of the most disliked figures in national politics

Editor’s Note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002. He is the author of six books, including “Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again.”

(CNN) —  

“Why liberals oppose a strong American presence in space.”

That was the title of the very first speech by Newt Gingrich I ever attended, all the way back in the winter of 1983. The event was the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.

The speech hit the two great themes that have characterized Gingrich’s career to this day: enthusiasm for grandiose ideas – wrapped in rancor, division and name-calling.

A classic display of the Gingrich method was the memo he circulated to elite Republicans in the fall of 2004. (Gingrich is about as much a Washington “outsider” as the maitre d’ at Cafe Milano.)

David Frum
David Frum
PHOTO: Chuck Kennedy

“There is a temporary narrow partisan division among Americans, but there is no narrow values division. On a wide number of issues Americans average about four to one in favor of Center-Right values. In one set of 34 issues the American people averaged 77% on one side and 17% on the other side.

“Only the continued overwhelming bias of the news media (amounting to a culture of the left which simply cannot imagine any other value set being legitimate) and the deliberate deception and denial of the Democratic ticket combined with a Republican failure to focus the campaign on the big choices has allowed the myth of a narrowly divided country to survive.”

To drive home the supposed values separation between the Kerry ticket and the nation, Gingrich urged the Bush ticket to focus attacks on a series of issues that highlighted that supposed 4:1 values divide, including:

“1. A work requirement for welfare: 87% of Americans say yes, 5% no. John Kerry and the Senate Democrats have blocked the bill for three years.

2. Government should help faith-based initiatives help the poor: 72% of Americans agree, 26% disagree; Kerry is with the 26%.

3. U.S. interests are more important than international organizations: 73-24; Kerry’s positions favor the 24%.

4. Violent attackers of pregnant women who kill the baby should be prosecuted for killing the baby: 84% of Americans say yes, 9% no. Kerry voted no.

5. Children should be allowed to pray at school: 78% of Americans agree; Kerry is against it.”

Looking back on that Gingrich platform from the perspective of eight years later, it’s striking how utterly irrelevant those five highlighted points were to the largest problems of the time.

It does not address the inflating housing bubble and the lax financial regulations that would wreak such disaster in the years ahead.

It does not address stagnating incomes or rising health costs.

It does not address Iraq or Iran or the war in Afghanistan.

That’s not to say Gingrich did not have strong views on those questions. He did, of course. It’s just that, to Gingrich, such substantive issues were not the stuff of campaign politics. Campaign politics was about finding ways to define your opponent as alien, hostile and dangerous. The definition need not correspond to any actual real-world problem.

Look at Gingrich tenet No. 4. Criminal law is a matter mostly for state policy, not federal. Nor was America in 2004 a country where there existed much risk that a violent attacker of a pregnant woman would escape punishment: the U.S. already had the most draconian criminal laws of any advanced democracy. To what practical question is tenet No. 4 the answer? Answer: zero.

You see the Gingrich method at work again in his famous comment to a reporter about his view of the Obama presidency:

“What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together” his actions? That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior. This is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president. I think he worked very hard at being a person who is normal, reasonable, moderate, bipartisan, transparent, accommodating – none of which was true. He was authentically dishonest.”

Alien. Hostile. Dangerous.

But here’s a problem with Gingrich-style politics. It does not long survive the encounter with real-world voter concerns.

The pollsters who generate those 70% numbers are creating a statistical artifact, not a workable political majority. In his pursuit of a governing majority, Gingrich has chased phantoms: In that 1983 speech about liberals and space, for example, Gingrich actually cited the popularity of the “Star Wars” movies as evidence that space exploration could be a winning issue for Republicans. The person most deluded by Gingrich’s politics of cultural division has always been Gingrich himself.

Which is how this politician, so brilliantly adept at manipulating the internal politics of the Republican Party, has fared so badly whenever he steps onto the national stage. For all the momentum supposedly unleashed by his win in the Republican South Carolina primary, Gingrich remains one of the very most disliked figures in national politics, as Josh Marshall reminds readers in this remarkable chart.

Nor is it only Democrats who disapprove. Over a political career of nearly 40 years, Gingrich has convinced almost everybody who has ever worked closely with him that he cannot and should not be trusted with executive power.

The reaction to Gingrich’s poll surge in December was panic among senior Republicans, and the panic is only intensifying now. It’s striking that almost none of Gingrich’s former colleagues in the House has endorsed him for president. Striking that nobody associated with a past Republican presidential association has done so.

He is a candidate of talk-show hosts and local activists – and of course of Rick Perry and Sarah Palin – but not of those who know him best and have worked with him most closely. Gingrich may raise more money after his South Carolina win. But prediction: Romney will raise even more, among the great national network of Republicans who recognize that to nominate Gingrich is to commit party suicide.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.