Will American Voters Elect an Unbearably Pompous President?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

For the end of a long week (and semester), maybe a bit of armchair analysis of the presidential horse race will soothe the soul.

In a pre-primary season of endless surprises, one of the most unexpected changes in fortune is the resurgence of Newt Gingrich's chances to win the Republican nomination. All but written off early in the summer, with many Republicans trashing him after his entire staff quit on him, Gingrich has recently become at least the non-Romney du jour, now leading the field in many polls. One temptation is to view this as simply another spin of the wheel, with Gingrich's rise to be followed in a few weeks by another spectacular fall, leaving the field by default to Mitt Romney and the next non-Romney. Given the time frame, however, it is quite possible that Gingrich's otherwise-inevitable fall will not come soon enough for him to lose the Iowa caucuses. If he wins there, then the entire game changes, and he could actually win the nomination. This would, of course, closely follow the John McCain story from 2007-08, in which McCain was written off the summer before the primaries, only to re-emerge in January 2008 and quickly take the prize.

It is, therefore, at least possible to imagine a path by which Gingrich wins the Republican presidential nomination. What would that mean for the general election? It was amusing today to see a front-page article in The New York Times about the Republican presidential candidates, carrying the sub-title: "In unsettled race, no 'perfect candidate.' " Not perfect? Is that not the understatement of the year? The Republicans' central problem -- and President Obama's greatest hope -- is that the GOP nominees are all so unappealing that the party could actually fail to unseat the most vulnerable incumbent in memory.

We are, after all, talking about a non-incumbent party that starts with a solid 40-45% of the vote in any election, and at least 200 electoral votes locked up. If the economy's recovery is still weak and erratic next year, one would think that the out-party candidate would win handily, especially given the fierce hatred of the incumbent by activists in the GOP. Yet the same internal logic that cost the Republicans at least three Senate seats in the 2010 landslide -- and that, therefore, cost them a 50/50 split in the Senate, if not actual control of the upper chamber -- could have them nominating the presidential-level analogue to Christine O'Donnell or Sharron Angle.

The question raised by the title of my post, however, applies specifically to Gingrich's most obvious electability problem. Gingrich continues to enjoy an undeserved reputation as a "really smart guy," as two of my (rather liberal) colleagues grimly agreed over a recent lunch. In 2009, I wrote two blog posts (here and here) questioning how that reputation came into being, and marveling at its staying power in the face of clear evidence that he -- to put it mildly -- really is not a font of innovative ideas. As Maureen Dowd said of Gingrich earlier this year: "He prides himself, after all, on being a man of ideas. It is rarely mentioned that the ideas are mostly chuckleheaded." Yet the reputation sticks.

However, Gingrich's electability problem, in the through-the-looking-glass illogic of American politics, is not that the Idea Guy has no new or useful ideas. It is that he clearly believes the hype, presenting himself as the smartest guy he knows, with clear contempt for everyone and everything around him. In a world of bloated egos and delusional self-images, it is difficult to think of anyone as pompous and self-aggrandizing as Gingrich. He leaves the impression that he thinks we should not just vote for him, but beg him to be President and apologize to him for not having unanimously elected him by acclaim years ago.

Professor Dorf and I had a conversation once about the perceived reputations of the two parties' candidates in recent presidential elections, running through the elections since 1960 to compare who was the more "likable" or "regular guy" candidate. There seemed to be a pretty strong pattern in which the likable/regular guy candidate never lost. Clearly, these images are difficult to measure, but it is at least instructive to think about the broad outlines of this question. In some elections, there is no apparent winner of the likability/regular guy sweepstakes. 1964, 1968, and 1972 seem to fit that pattern, with Nixon's unlikability in the latter two being outweighed by his opponents' lack of "common touch." In 1988, both candidates were elite and not particular likable (or unlikable), but at least Bush I went out of his way to demonize Dukakis as part of the "Harvard boutique," while pretending to be a big fan of pork rinds. In 2008, Obama was not a regular guy, but his opponent's relentless anger and inability to connect with middle-class voters (including his poor handling of the question about how many homes he owned) made it possible for Obama at least to be perceived as the people's choice.

In the ensuing years, of course, Republicans have relentlessly pushed the idea that Obama is an egghead, an Ivy League elitist, a ditherer who is too professorial to lead, and the usual run of anti-intellectual attacks. The state of the economy makes the electorate at large more willing than they might otherwise be to buy into that story. Certainly, Obama is no longer the fresh new face onto which people can project what they wish to see.

Nominating Gingrich would, at a minimum, severely complicate that line of attack. This is a candidate, after all, who shows no sign of being willing to adjust his personality to become more likable or less pompous. Although he might be able to go through the motions of judging pie-eating contests at county fairs, he fairly drips of condescension wherever he goes. Even the most angry voters might find it a stretch to say, "I'm voting for Newt because Obama's a pointy-headed intellectual. I want a guy who's not always thinking so much."

Meanwhile, the Romney campaign is apparently (according to this story) giving up on the idea of humanizing their candidate, opting instead to "build a better Romney-bot," in one of the funnier lines of the season. We thus have the two current front-runners who seek to take Obama's job giving up on what has been one of the most notable assets of modern politics. No Reagans or W's here. If Republicans are to win, they will have to hope that their eventual nominee's notable shortage of humanity (or even the appearance of the ability to feel empathy) can be overcome by some combination of other factors.

So, will American voters elect an unbearably pompous President? There are surely more than enough negatives against Obama, along with non-substantive advantages for the Republicans in terms of controlling the voting processes in swing states (as well as fund-raising advantages, and so on), to imagine that Gingrich could win. Extreme pomposity is not obviously disqualifying in 2012. Still, if I were on Obama's re-election team, I would find much to cheer about in the reappearance of Newt Gingrich. On the other hand, as citizens who might nonetheless have to endure four or eight years of a Gingrich presidency, perhaps his pomposity is the least of our concerns.