In 2007, as Newt Gingrich publicly toyed with the idea of running for the Republican nomination for President, the sotto voce chatter was about Gingrich’s “baggage” should he win the nomination. That didn’t refer to his public-relations defeat over the 1995 government shutdown, either. Gingrich chose not to run in 2008 and didn’t address his divorces and infidelities, but if his interview with an Iowa television station is any measure, he’s serious about running this time:
Glover: Speaker, I’d like to go through some of the weaknesses that your critics point to with you. They say that you bring some personal and political baggage to a race. You’ve been married three times, you’ve had messy divorces, you’re campaigning in a state where the Republican Party is dominated by Christian conservatives. How do you get past that?
Gingrich: I think you don’t get past it, I think you tell the truth and I think you share your life’s experiences and you admit that you have had weaknesses and that you have had failures and that you’ve gone to God to seek forgiveness and to seek reconciliation and then people make a decision and they look at the totality of my life, I’m 67, Callista and I have a great marriage, we have two wonderful daughters, we have two grandchildren who are terrific and people have to decide on balance. Am I a person that they would respect and trust in the White House?
I think he’s right that candidates don’t “get past” anything in campaigns, even for issues already asked and answered. And while it’s true that personal lives shouldn’t have much impact on policy stands, it’s even more true that voting decisions are rarely based on cold logic. Voters need an emotional connection to a candidate, which Gingrich diagnoses almost perfectly in his summation on this point. Voters have to trust and respect the candidate for whom they will vote, especially if that candidate wants those voters to evangelize on his or her behalf.
That puts Gingrich in a tough position, not just because he’s had two divorces but because of the circumstances surrounding them. In both cases, Gingrich left his wives to marry women with whom he had been carrying on affairs. That has been fodder for the Left for years, and in the kind of tough primary that will unfold this year, it will be for Republicans, too. While these kinds of personal peccadilloes may be less unusual than they might have been 40 years ago, they still don’t play towards trust and respect with the conservative base. His previous attempt to explain this — that his work on behalf of the country drove him to adultery — didn’t play well with anyone. And that explanation also speaks to trust and respect, in a way that Gingrich obviously didn’t intend.
The tragedy of this is that Gingrich is one of the brightest top-tier activists in the Republican Party. He’s both articulate and expert, has tremendous power as a motivational speaker, and knows how to organize effectively. He has the same political weakness as any Congressman, which is no proven ability to win a state-wide election, but his years of national activism could have overcome that, and still might. The baggage problem will remain, however, even if Gingrich has finally hit on the proper formula for dealing with it directly.