What Gingrich '12 and Obama '08 Have in Common

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A professorial style. Egotism. Lack of executive experience. A vision of themselves as men of destiny. And a vow to fundamentally change the establishment.

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When Barack Obama ran against John McCain, conservatives noted his lack of executive experience, mocked his oratory, scoffed at his vague promises of "change," and insisted his supporters were naive to think he'd transform Washington D.C. The critique turns out to have had merit. In office, President Obama didn't try to change how the system worked, something he once called a precondition of meaningful reform. Instead, he worked within the system.

Skip forward to the present. Newt Gingrich is surging, and casting himself as the anti-Obama. They've got many substantive differences, to be sure, but the similarities are interesting too. It isn't just that Gingrich lacks executive experience and affects a professorial air. Look at his message. "This election is about fundamentally changing the direction of our nation," he said in the latest advertisement his campaign sent to National Review's email list. Here he is on "Meet the Press," having been asked if "the establishment" should fear a Gingrich Administration (emphasis added):

Well, the establishment is right to be worried about a Gingrich nomination, because a Gingrich nomination means that we're going to change things. We're going to make the establishment very uncomfortable. We're going to demand real change in Washington, real audit of the Federal Reserve, real knowledge about where hundreds of billions of dollars have gone. And I think that if you look at a lot of these guys, they have really good reason to worry about an honest, open candidate who has no commitment to them, and who has no investment in them. And I think they should be worried, because we intend to change the establishment, not get along with it.

It's really something. After mocking Democrats for believing that Obama would really change Washington, a lot of Republicans are swooning for the same lines -- and this time, they're coming from a man as responsible as anyone for creating the current Republican culture in Congress! Gingrich is so establishment that he started an extramarital affair with a House staffer, married her, and then started a business with her where he could cash in on his establishment influence. If a gig as an AEI scholar and $1.6 million to play "historian" for Freddie Mac isn't "get[ting] along" I don't know what is. 

One can't help but marvel at the pliability of the partisan mind. It isn't so long ago that Obama detractors objected to his inflated sense of self, his penchant for grandiosity, his use of the first-person pronoun, and stagecraft like the marble columns that served as backdrop for one of his speeches. Don't you see how comically full of himself this guy is? they asked Democrats, marveling when they didn't. "I mean, I saw it back during the campaign," Rush Limbaugh once said. "I'm talking about who Obama really is, this petulant, self-absorbed, egoistic little man-child."

Now Gingrich is running around calling the wife he cheated on a liar, comparing himself to historical figures, avowing he is a man of destiny, and insisting at every opportunity on a series of Lincoln-Douglas debates. Can you imagine the reaction had Obama kept repeating the words "Lincoln-Douglas debates," as if merely suggesting the format conferred the gravitas he was owed?

Given the high hopes of voters in 2008, Obama's broken promises are a minor tragedy. Gingrich is taking the most mockable aspects of his 2008 campaign and repeating them as absurdist farce.


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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