The Newtonian conundrum: Has Gingrich changed since the 1990s? Character Sketch

CHARLESTON, S.C.--Precisely a year from today in Washington, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts will swear in the next president. And, in order of likelihood, standing there with his left hand on the Bible and his right hand in the air will either be a reelected Barack Obama, a determined Mitt Romney or (gulp) a vindicated Newt Gingrich.

Yes, Newt Gingrich, a 68-year-old man who was last elected to office in 1998, a candidate whose ex-wife is crusading against him on television, a contender who has been knocked out so many times in this campaign that he should be punch drunk, is now the third most likely person in this land of 300 million people to be the next president. Before vulnerable Democrats lapse into cardiac arrest, I should stress that the odds of a Gingrich presidency are still dauntingly long. But unlike 10 days ago, following well-I-did-beat-Rick-Perry finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, President Gingrich is now a plausible possibility.

"So what would a Gingrich presidency be like?"

In a speech to a South Carolina business group on Tuesday in Columbia, Gingrich himself posed just that question as a way of his introducing his tax-cutting economic plan. But for some Republican voters the question brings to mind the former House speaker's temperament--and, to be blunt, whether he has the right emotional makeup to be entrusted with the codes to nuclear weapons. The Romney campaign has been hammering this theme in South Carolina by releasing a web ad featuring Susan Molinari, who served in the House with Gingrich, railing against his lack of discipline as speaker and calling his management style "leadership by chaos."

Alternately bombastic and visionary, self-important and cerebral, Gingrich is certain to be hounded by these type of questions throughout his campaign. During Thursday night's debate, Rick Santorum attacked Gingrich for his "grandiosity" and the Romney campaign put out a Newt's-greatest-hits press release headlined, "I Think Grandiose Thoughts." Gingrich underscored this theme when he described himself as a "big ideas, big solutions" nontraditional candidate who erred by beginning his campaign with "regular consultants and tried to figure out how to be a normal candidate." (You can almost imagine the attack ad: "Gingrich admits he's not a 'normal candidate.' Do we really want someone abnormal in the Oval Office?")

The Gingrich candidacy poses a Newtonian conundrum: Can a political leader in his late sixties change? This is a serious question rather than as a cynical reference to the illusory "New Nixon" who was trotted out for the 1968 presidential campaign. During a November Fox News interview with Sean Hannity, Gingrich declared, "I think I'm much more mature than I was when I was speaker."

Sure, Gingrich can be dismissed as an unreliable narrator on the subject of his late-in-life conversion to maturity. But I am also reflecting on a conversation that I had with Robert McFarlane, a Gingrich supporter who was Ronald Reagan's national security advisor, in the spin room after a debate just before the New Hampshire primary.

"The Newt that I traveled with in the last months is a much more mature, cerebral figure than when he left office," McFarlane told me. "I have seen his steadiness over the last six months." What gives McFarlane credibility in my book is that sadly he knows all too well the emotional rigors that accompany life inside the corridors of power--the former Reagan aide attempted suicide in 1987 from shame over his involvement in the Iran-contra scandal.

What gives the Gingrich candidacy heft is that, alone among the remaining Republican contenders, the former House speaker radiates a well-developed view of the presidency that goes beyond applause lines and stances on issues. If you listen carefully to Gingrich on the campaign trail, you can sense that he has thought about how to wield the powers of the office. In his stump speech, Gingrich declares: "I will sign between 100 and 200 executive orders on the first day within two hours of the inaugural address. The first will abolish all the White House czars." There is something quintessentially Gingrichian about the numerical specificity of his projected 100 to 200 executive orders. The number may be entirely made up, but Gingrich conveys the impression that he could rattle them off in sequence.

Part of the Gingrich difference is that Newt understands, at least in theory, how to negotiate. Offering a slightly airbrushed account of the government shutdown in 1995 and 1996 that ended up strengthening Bill Clinton's bargaining position, Gingrich said in Columbia: "Clinton and I had a rhythm: Hold a press conference and beat each other up--and then go to work. And we would sit in a meeting and he would say to me, 'This is what I have to do and this is what I can do. Now what do you have to have and what can you do?'"

This is a world-shaking historical insight. (Whoops, I'm sounding like Newt). But, in truth, this is how smart politicians and presidents negotiate. They do not govern by fiat. They cannot unilaterally transform the tax code or automatically rewrite Medicare legislation. Instead, they get their political adversaries to set priorities: What is politically off-limits and what is negotiable? It is within those margins that legislation like welfare reform can not only pass Congress but also be signed into law by the president. Gingrich appears to understand that lesson, even though his ability to put it into practice remains debatable.

Gingrich's stump speech offers another hint of the Newtonian laws of political compromise. In Columbia, he said that as president, "I would reach out to every Democrat [in Congress], not just the leadership." Using as an example the efforts to revitalize the impoverished "corridor of shame" along the planned route of I-73 in South Carolina, Gingrich said that as president he would ask Democrats in Congress: "Do you want to help get it done or not? If not, I won't call you. If you want to, we're in business." Again, this is how an activist president like Lyndon Johnson would use the levers of power: telling legislators, in effect, that you have to give to get.

As a presidential candidate, free-wheelin' Newt offers the perfect counterpoint to PowerPoint Mitt. The real question as the race for the Republican nomination morphs from a cakewalk into a contest is whether there is indeed a New Newt, or whether Gingrich's claim to newfound maturity is just another artful reinvention by the Great Survivor of Republican politics.

Walter Shapiro, a special correspondent for the New Republic, is covering his ninth presidential campaign. Follow him on Twitter at @waltershapiroPD. This is part of a series of Yahoo News columns examining what we know about the character and personalities of the 2012 candidates.

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