Newt Gingrich: Republicans Should Start 'Actually Knowing Things'

The former Speaker of the House offers a devastating critique of Herman Cain and other GOP presidential candidates

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Over at National Review Online, Robert Costa has transcribed a priceless quote from Newt Gingrich, who remarked on the challenges that Herman Cain faces, and said something about the GOP that is both devastating and true:

When you're a would-be president, every topic picks you. Whatever happens this morning is the new topic. So, you have to have the ability to get briefed, very fast. Ideally, you should know a fair amount going in. And I think one of the Republican weaknesses has been that we rely too much on consultants and too much on talking points. And we don't rely enough on actually knowing things.

He's right, though some qualifications are in order.

Mitt Romney knows things. So do Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty, Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels -- there are actually plenty of Republicans whose depth of knowledge is impressive, or would be if they stopped pandering long enough to show it. But GOP candidates who are popular with the Tea Party? Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain are all about talking points. They lack policy knowledge and wisdom. And while the core supporters responsible for their ascents either don't know any better or don't care, the candidates quickly hit a ceiling.

Even in Republican primaries.

The great obstacle to remedying this pathology is the right-leaning media. If you're a guy like Marco Rubio, you don't need to know anything to become the darling of Fox News, Kathryn Jean Lopez, and Rush Limbaugh. And this is partly because they're more versed in talking points than actual knowledge, which isn't a reflection of their intelligence so much as their intellectual laziness and profoundly ideological mindset. They're the cheerleaders, not the debate team, and while it's true that many of them could make the debate team, it isn't the route they chose.

In Larry Lessig's new book, there is a passage about President Reagan that bears repeating:

People forget how important ideas were to Ronald Reagan. By the end of his term, his opponents had painted him as little more than an actor on a very important stage. But I doubt we have had a president in the past fifty years who more carefully and completely thought through a philosophy for governing and government.

Reagan was more an academic than even the professor president, Barack Obama. Whether you like his ideas or not, they were ideas. If you doubt my claim, then just listen to the extraordinary collection of radio lectures Reagan delivered between January 1975 and October 1979. Said to have been written completely by him himself, scrawled on yellow legal pads in his office in Pacific Palisades, California, without the help of aides or clerks, these thousand-plus three-minute shows mapped a series of arguments about the major issues of the day. They were not cheap shots at current events. They were not fluffy rhetoric masking empty ideas. They were instead conclusive evidence of a president with a plan.

This is how the greatest Republican success story since Abraham Lincoln rose to the presidency, and although all on the right claim to revere him, they certainly don't follow his example. It's as if they've internalized the portrait painted by his least fair detractors -- that he was just a Fox News style talking head, spouting dogma and delegating to people smarter than himself. When even Newt Gingrich is acknowledging that now "one of the Republican weaknesses has been that we rely too much on consultants and too much on talking points. And we don't rely enough on actually knowing things," surely things can't go on this way much longer.

Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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