Presidential campaigns are less about substance than a test of how candidates will react to new and unexpected situations. I think that's a good thing because it is nearly impossible to predict the problems that will confront a new president, but likely that they'll be issues that weren't discussed in debates.
George Bush didn't spend a lot of time talking about terrorism during the 2000 campaign, but the events of 9/11 made it a priority. Similarly the candidates during the 2008 contest weren't pushed for detailed responses on how they'd respond to the greater international financial crisis since the Great Depression.
I realize that inevitably leaves a lot of true believers unhappy when their candidate fails to deliver on his promises. Social conservatives have so regularly had the rug pulled out from under them after their candidate was elected that they must feel like Charlie Brown believing that Lucy will actually hold the football until he kicks it. In the same way, liberals feel Obama has strayed.
That's their problem.
I think the reactive test imposed by the campaign is useful irrespective of the particular issue involved. When it comes to behavior, the past is indeed prologue. The president I recall who made the most drastic changes was Nixon (off the gold standard, wage and price controls, universal health insurance) and that's largely because he was so (distressingly to many) pragmatic. Ideologically, was there anything there?
All of which leads to my question about Newt Gingrich, which is this: Is he a quitter? When the going gets tough, will he head for the nearest exit? Consider how Bill Clinton held onto his presidency despite impeachment efforts and criticism from his own party and compare that with how Newt, newly-re-elected to Congress in 1996, suddenly resigned his seat, forcing the government of Georgia to fund a special election, when it became clear that he'd no longer be Speaker of the House. I challenge Congressional historians to come up with another Speaker who simply upped and quit when told he couldn't retain the gavel.
This seems to be part of a larger pattern for a candidate who has an abnormally short attention span even by political standards. He walked away from two marriages when they didn't go his way. If elected, what are the odds that he'll still be President and still be married to the same woman by the end of his term? What would the oddsmakers say?
Here's a scenario for you. Newt gets elected and Republicans control both houses of Congress and have great success in imposing their radical program. Two years later, they lose control of the House and have a margin in the Senate that can be neutralized by a filibuster. What would Newt do?
Here's another. The economic situation continues to deteriorate and America's lenders, the Chinese perhaps, demand changes in the American economy as the price of continued assistance -- a situation not unlike what we've witnessed recently in Southern Europe. How would Newt respond to that one?
I raise this question for my Republican friends. As a Democrat I don't have much enthusiasm for a Gingrich presidency. But it seems increasingly possible that he could get elected. If that happens, as a regular-order guy, I think it's generally a good idea for elected officials to stay the course and do the job. In an unstable world, the added distraction of an internet site presenting daily odds on whether President Gingrich was considering other endeavors would not be a positive development.
In short, we know that if nominated he'll run. The question now is whether if elected, he'll serve -- and, if so, for how long?