It is no mystery as to why Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina primary.
For all of his flaws (and there are many), there are two traits Americans have historically loved: underdogs and fighters.
There is no question Gingrich is a fighter. He is unapologetically grandiose, a man of incredible confidence and of grand ideas. I've read most of his books, and loved them all for their passion, their sense of history, and their sense of righteousness.
In his debates and speeches he has gained a following by taking it to the media, to the Democratic party, to the President of the United States, to anyone who challenges him. He is brilliant in his ability to think on his feet, his grasp of issues, and even when faced with a hostile audience (the black church in South Carolina), Gringrich stands behind what he believes and doesn't back down.
Amazingly, Gingrich has become the underdog in this political season. The more people dig up the many (and at times egregious) errors of his past and try to throw them in his face, the more support he gets from the American public who, down deep, loves to see public figures fall but also believe enough is enough, and grow angry when they think a man is getting kicked repeatedly for past mistakes.
The irony, for the Democrats at least, is that they are the ones who in the 1990s preached that President Clinton's sexual immorality was not relevant. And of course even some of our most beloved presidents from both parties are now known to have not been able to keep their marriage vows.
Funny that it matters now - and good that it does. The Republican party has prided itself as taking up the mantel of 'family values' and holding themselves to traditional standards while the Democrats have prided themselves on embracing non-traditional values. It is important that those values are kept in front of us as the standard we aspire to.
Rick Santorum, to me, is more faithful to those traditional conservative values than Gingrich and more consistent. As I told my son in a recent discussion, Gingrich portrays all the right values, Santorum lives them.
And Santorum has been a fighter, too. In the early debates, in particular, I was frustrated that he was always on the edge of the stage (a sign that he wasn't being taken seriously) and got so little air time. Santorum expressed that frustration frequently, too.
The problem is that when Santorum fights back, he sounds like he's whining. He can't help it. It's his facial expression, his tone of voice.
When Gingrich fights back, he sounds like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or a John Wayne-character who is willing to walk out on the street alone to stand up to the bad guys. And he resonates. And so I am grudgingly willing to accept Gingrich's personal infidelity, because I am calloused when it comes to the personal lives of people in power and repeatedly fall for the power of his vision.
My concern over Gingrich comes down too two issues.
One may sound strange, but I'm afraid he might be so good in a debate against President Obama that he actually turns the President into a sympathetic character. He can come across as an intellectual bully, and believe it or not I fear that could work against him.
The other is that those two characteristics that make Gingrich so admirable are also what I fear in him as a president. His record as Speaker - while he accomplished so much that is admirable and lead to some of the great gains of the Clinton presidency - is that he didn't play well with others. He is so confident in his own intellect that those around him have, in the past, complained that he won't listen to his advisers.
The fighter that I admire in Gingrich is not so admirable when he's fighting with his own advisers and staff. It's destructive. A President needs to have people around him who have different ideas, and the President needs to be able to listen, to consider, and sometimes even be willing to concede.
Which is why I continue to support Santorum.
But, to quote a certain bright young man who spoke to the Washington Post here, "That’s amazing we (Santorum) pulled (Iowa) out,’’ said Roecker Melick, 19, of Birmingham, Ala. If his first choice doesn’t prevail, though, Melick said, his Plan B is Gingrich. “He has a questionable personal life,’’ he allowed, in answer to a friend who was arguing that that was disqualifying. “But who knows more about Washington?”
Indeed, given the alternatives, I'll take my chances on an independent fighter who has ideas as grand as the country he loves ...
Almost as much as he loves himself.