The zipper factor

    One big question for Newt Gingrich, who sorta kinda launched his presidential candidacy yesterday, is whether his roguish zipper history will bar him from winning the Republican nomination.By the way, we should all applaud his apparent determination to run; if nothing else, Newt would bring zip to the Republican intramurals. But when he announced yesterday that he’s “very seriously” testing the waters to determine whether he will fully explore the exploratory phase of a presidential bid – such is the process these days – I couldn’t help but wonder about the weight of all his personal baggage. Will it be too heavy a lift for the Christian conservatives who dominate the gateway Republican contests in Iowa and South Carolina?Perhaps the personal is no longer political, even within the “family values” party. Since 1980, after all, Republicans have nominated three guys with multiple marriages: Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, and John McCain. Nobody seemed to care about how or why they got divorced back in the day; the GOP primary voters were focused instead on the candidates’ public lives going forward.But Newt has long been a larger than life kind of guy, and his life as a babe magnet has been qualitatively different from the norm. Newt has led a three-wife life – and, as Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, told the press the other day, perhaps that’s “one spouse too many for most evangelicals.”Actually, Newt’s spouse tally doesn’t begin to tell the tale. He served divorce papers on his first wife as she lay in a hospital bed recovering from a cancer operation. And years later, while he was publicly scolding President Clinton for canoodling with intern Monica Lewinsky, he himself was concurrently canoodling with a congressional aide – an affair that occurred while he was married to the wife who had replaced the cancer-stricken wife. That second wife has since been supplanted by the congressional aide, who is now his current wife.Roughly 60 percent of Iowa Republican caucus participants typically describe themselves as evangelicals; hence Newt’s potential problem. Unless the GOP’s morality wing is willing to absolve or excuse or forgive his track record of immorality (and his treatment of women), he is most assuredly toast.Newt knows all this, which is why he has spent years trying to curry favor with the religious right. Four years ago this week, in fact, he went on bended knee to religious-right broadcaster James Dobson, and voiced repentance on the air: “There are some elements I’m not proud of….There were times when I was praying, and when I felt I was doing things that were wrong, but I was still doing them. I look back at this as periods of weakness, periods not only that I’m not proud of, but I deeply urge my grandchildren not to follow in my footsteps…..I believe deeply that people fall short, that people have to recognize they have to turn to God for forgiveness….I don’t know how you could live with yourself…if you don’t deal with your weaknesses and go to God about them.”I wondered at the time whether religious conservatives would buy Newt’s claim that he had prayed in the midst of his sexcapades; in the end it didn’t matter, because he ultimately chose to skip the 2008 Republican race. But with the ’12 race in his sights, he has been in full humility mode ever since. When sharply questioned by a Democratic student activist at the University of Pennsylvania last month, Newt repeated his ’07 radio theme: “I’ve had a life which, on occasion, has had problems. I believe in a forgiving God.”And just to ensure that God’s right-wing constituents will forgive him, he has been giving them lots of money. For instance, when conservative Iowans ginned up a campaign to oust three state Supreme Court judges who had ruled in favor of gay marriage, Newt ponied up $200,000 for the cause. (Apparently, an amoral straight guy can bond with the GOP’s morality wing by targeting gay people.) Newt has also launched a nonprofit group that addresses religious conservative priorities, and he has packed the board with religious conservative leaders. As one Iowa pastor said this week, “God is forgiving.”Newt might also conceivably get a pass on his personal past simply because most people seem to be focused these days on jobs and red ink and budgets. In the latest bipartisan NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, roughly two-thirds of Republican primary voters said they were “more likely” to vote for a GOP candidate who stresses the economy and the deficit, as opposed to social issues. Gingrich placed a distant third in the hypothetical contest, trailing Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney.What the heck, somebody has to get into this race besides ex-pizza mogul Herman Cain. Newt’s biggest problem – going beyond the zipper factor, and what it may suggest about his character – is that many top Republicans still think he’s a loose cannon. Senator Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma conservative, said earlier this week on C-SPAN, “He is undoubtedly the smartest man I’ve ever met. He is a thinker. He has great vision. The question to me is, does he have the capability to lead the country and, having served under him in the House, he’s probably not one I would choose to support in a presidential primary.” Coburn also said that Republicans need somebody who is “stable and is learned and is going to consistently bring us together rather than alienate us.”Newt isn’t “stable?” Apparently he’ll need more than God’s forgiveness to make this race work.——-I was a guest for an hour this morning on WHYY’s “Radio Times,” talking national politics with the estimable Susan Milligan of U.S. News & World Report. It’s archived here.

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