During the spring of 1991, Saturday Night Live – with an all star cast that included Kevin Nealon, Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman and Jack Bauer, er I mean Keifer Sutherland – staged one of the greatest political sketches in its long illustrious history; it was entitled “Campaign ’92:The Race To Avoid Being The Guy Who Loses To Bush.” It was, and is, pure genius; Phil Hartman as Cuomo is priceless.
In retrospect – there was no Clinton and Bush would end up a one-termer – it looks foolish; but when it was filmed President Forty One enjoyed a whopping 80+ approval rating and looked unstoppable. In a way, he looked an awful lot like President Obama this week.
The conventional wisdom about 2012 seems to be following this narrative: the GOP, lacking a strong standard bearer, is simply going to be overwhelmed by the power of incumbency, BHO’s fundraising advantage, and the successful execution of Bin Laden. These factors will overcome a weak economic recovery and years of rising gas and food prices.
Which sounds a lot like 1991; while the victory was more complete (Desert Storm was spectacular and on a far larger scale), and the economic downturn demonstrably less serious, Bush likewise faced a Democrat field that at this stage in his re-election campaign was more notable for who it lacked (Bill Bradley, Lloyd Bentsen, and the irascible Cuomo) than who it included (the other Sen. Kerrey, former (and future) Gov. Jerry Brown, and Sen. Harkin).
In 1992, the field got a whole lot larger – even as all of those same guys avoided being the guy who loses to Bush. This perceived void was filled by a cerebral, salt and pepper haired southern politician with a lot of ideas and a willingness to be creative – Bill Clinton.
Yesterday, the 2012 GOP field got larger, and the same perceived void could again be filled by a cerebral, salt and pepper haired southern politician with a lot of ideas and a willingness to be creative – Newt Gingrich.
The comparisons between Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich may seem self serving – after all, I do, in fact, dream of 2013 in post Obama tones – but they are also valid. After all, the best years of economic performance this country has seen in a generation occurred when those two men were driving the debate and cutting deals.
Newt, for all his flaws and his sins, is a genuine intellectual heavyweight and a man who is driven by real ideas and actual solutions. He is a politician and as such a craftsman in spin – but under that veneer is a rock solid mind full of ideas and a willingness to work with anybody to advance the ball in the right direction.
In the weeks to come, I expect that the “Gingrich who stole Christmas” version of Newt will be in vogue again, but before it does remember a few things: this is a man who delivered – with John Kasich – the last balanced budget signed by a US President; who crafted the welfare reform bill that was so successful welfare moms ceased to be a political “thing” and welfare reform unheard of in public debate; and who is so driven by the idea to find solutions that he even partnered with Nancy Pelosi because doing so could help save lives through medical records modernization.
That is not the portrait of an ideologue hide bound by far right dogma – it is the resume of a leader who fought hard and achieved good results throughout his career.
He has his baggage – as did Mr. Clinton, if memory serves. It is a liability, but is it a relevant one given our present circumstances? After all, Clinton was, well, Clinton – yet who amongst us would not trade the today’s problems for the now seemingly halcyon days of the 90’s?
Newt most certainly has an uphill battle – his marital issues will hurt him in the primary, and he will be savaged from the right as unelectable; if he wins the nomination he will face a traditional the media loathes him – loathes him like they loathed Bush.
But the muddled GOP field gives him a path to nomination, the rise of new media will dilute the old media’s impact (and Newt is the most new media savvy of the field), and his vast established fundraising network gives him a chance to make his case to the people who really decide elections these days – independents.
Dismiss Newt at your peril; he engineered a GOP takeover for the first time in over 40 years based on his ability to see issues clearly and present them plainly, and is as good as anyone walking terra firma at reading political tea leaves. Newt is in this because he thinks he can win it all. And if he can gain the nomination, it will be a fight worth remembering.
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