Nice or Newt?

Newt Gingrich’s candidacy may answer the question of whether you have to be likable to be president.

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Click image to expand.
Newt Gingrich

Do you have to be likable to be president? Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign will test this question more than any viable candidate since Richard Nixon.

For months, the former House speaker has said he would announce his presidential decision in early March. Several news outlets are reporting that he’ll form an exploratory committee this week. Anyone who saw him speak to the Conservative Political Action Conference three weeks ago would not be surprised: He was clearly mounting some kind of campaign. He entered not from the wings, where senators and House members had shuffled to the stage, but instead emerged from a side door on the second floor of the vast ballroom. As he descended the stairs, “Eye of the Tiger” blasted from the speakers. Avoiding the direct route to the stage, he waded through the crowd, which greeted him with cries of “Caesar! Caesar!”

OK, that last part I made up. But given the theatrical entrance, anything seemed possible. The crowd of committed conservatives was happy to see him. At a time when Republican activists are looking for leaders who will stick to their policy principles under pressure, there is no conservative candidate—announced or in GOP fantasies—who can match Newt Gingrich’s record. In his push to balance the budget he risked, and achieved, two government shutdowns. Before that, he fought a decades-long struggle to build a majority party based on core conservative principles. As Gingrich reminds us: “I helped create the modern Republican Party.”

Those battles took a toll on his popularity. As freshman GOP congressman Todd Rokita put it in the New York Times, Gingrich’s approach was “sticking fingers in people’s eyes.” His disapproval rating approached 70 percent during the fights of the mid-’90s. When he announced in November 1998 that he was stepping down, 70 percent approved of his decision, according to an ABC/Washington Post poll. Approval ratings aren’t everything, but to Gingrich they are important: He cited Obama’s low approval rating of 51 percent as proof of just how flawed his presidency is.

Still, unpopularity in a just cause will be a badge of honor for Gingrich in the GOP primaries. But how will he manage in a general election where independent and moderate voters will require courtship? Maybe he’ll figure that out once he’s wrapped up the nomination. Or maybe primary voters will want to know if he’s viable in a general election, just as they wanted to know that about Hillary Clinton, who was also highly unpopular.

The good news for Gingrich is that his image has improved since he left Congress. A Gallup poll in July of last year had his unfavorability rating at 38 percent, tied with his favorability rating. That’s not great, but still better than Sarah Palin’s unfavorability rating, which is 53 percent, and Hillary Clinton’s, which was at 52 in the spring of 2007.

Unlike Clinton or Palin, there is no clear path to softening the Gingrich image. Clinton’s “listening tour” during her Senate campaign helped change her image. Palin’s folksy approachability on display in her television show has not improved her standing in the polls, but at least it’s a strategy that can be deployed. Gingrich is aggressive, caustic, but unlike GOP candidates Rudy Giuliani and Bob Dole who also shared those traits, he does not display their easy laugh and talent for self-deprecation. Even when speaking to sympathetic audiences, his remarks come across punctuated by a metaphorical finger to the chest.

He’ll face questions that make it hard to be sunny as a candidate. He will be asked about his House reprimand and $300,000 fine for ethical violations, as well as the infidelities that ended his first two marriages. “No woman can understand what he did to his wives,” says a top adviser to one of his challengers, who is also careful to remind me that suburban wives are a key swing voting bloc.

Gingrich, who has argued that the Kenyan roots of President Obama’s father are crucial to understanding his presidency, can’t credibly claim that questions about his biography are unimportant. When asked last week by a Democratic campus activist about his marriages, Gingrich responded by saying he believed in a forgiving God and that he was making a bet that voters care more about the future than they do the foibles of his past.

Gingrich could launch a sustained campaign to show his warmer side, as Hillary Clinton tried in 2008. That seems highly unlikely. In the end, the success of the Gingrich candidacy will depend on the idea that the importance of likability is exaggerated. If so, it may come as a surprise to many Republicans who cite amiability among Ronald Reagan’s key characteristics or Democrats who cite FDR’s “temperament.”

It is an argument that Democrats made when defending Al Gore and John Kerry. Who cares whether voters want to have a beer with a candidate, or live with their constant presence on cable television. With a deficit of $1.6 trillion, chaos in the Middle East, oil prices rising and job growth anemic, Americans are in a serious mood. Maybe they’re ready for the file cabinets of ideas that Gingrich has in his head. If that’s the case, then all he’ll have to worry about is selling his ideas, not whether voters are even going to open the door.