Richard Shiro, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich, left, speaks as Mitt Romney, listens during the CBS News/National Journal foreign policy debate at the Benjamin Johnson Arena, Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011 in Spartanburg, S.C.
WASHINGTON — Following guilty flings with Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain, the GOP is finally contemplating marriage, which concentrates the mind.
The two current Republican front-runners, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, come from the same political territory — the land of at least minimal presidential credibility. Both are economic conservatives without being demolition-derby libertarians. Both are Reagan-inspired internationalists. Both have interesting records of ideological deviance — Romney on health care, Gingrich on the environment. Both display a knowledge of history and current events and the capacity to reason in public — attributes that can't be assumed in all of the Republican field.
But for all these similarities, Romney and Gingrich are a study in contrasts. Seldom has a political choice been less ideological or more dramatic.
Romney is a politician of moderate virtues and moderate vices. He is steady, disciplined and capable — important, but not Churchillian, leadership qualities. Romney's eagerness to please has left a trail of discarded policy positions — managing to displease true believers on all sides. While lacking scandalous personal vulnerabilities, he can also lack a human connection. This week Romney publicly confessed that he had "tasted a beer and tried a cigarette once, as a wayward teenager, and never did it again." Americans might identify with Romney more if he had taken that second sip.
Gingrich possesses larger strengths and larger weaknesses — both of which have been on recent display. In debates and forums, he shines. Sometimes he also preens. His sense of historical urgency can be exhausting. Every political moment, it seems, is the most decisive since the Battle of El Alamein, or the rise of Kemal Ataturk, or the Lincoln-Douglas debates. It is not enough, for example, for the Congressional Budget Office to be wrong. Its bland, nonpartisan economists, according to Gingrich, are part of a "reactionary socialist institution." He has perfected an unusual rhetorical method: provocation through exaggeration.
Gingrich's message is often driven not by strategy but by his constantly renewed stock of intellectual enthusiasms. So at a conservative forum I attended in Iowa, Gingrich used his time to criticize the tenure of Paul Bremer at the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, before calling for the elimination of certain federal circuit courts — a presidential maneuver that would invite a constitutional crisis. Afterward, a Gingrich associate admiringly told me that the candidate had spoken from a few notes hastily jotted immediately before the event. It was simultaneously a triumph of extemporaneous speaking and a failure of message discipline.
Gingrich is the former Speaker of the House of Representatives for a reason. In the success his talent brings, he lacks the discipline his prominence requires. He can spend years building a movement — then undermine it in a day. The phoenix always re-emerges, but there are ashes around him.
So what do Republicans want? Pastel safety or neon risk?
Romney should take comfort from the fact that political parties usually choose safety. But Gingrich's indiscipline is sometimes admirable.
During the most recent GOP debate, when the topic turned to immigration, Gingrich affirmed the need for border security and employer enforcement. But he added that some undocumented immigrants have deep American roots. There are people, he said, "who have been here 25 years and have two generations of family and have been paying taxes and are in a local church. ... I don't see how the party that says it's the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter-century. And I'm prepared to take the heat for saying, let's be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families."
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Gingrich is correct. He will take some heat. There is no Republican primary strategy that involves sympathy with the families of illegal immigrants. Gingrich's indifference to political strategy, in this case, was evidence of his decency. Romney and his campaign went on the attack, accusing Gingrich of endorsing "amnesty" — even though Romney supported immigration reform legislation in 2005 that included a path to citizenship. The contrast between the candidates was dramatic — and not favorable to Romney.
Successful presidential campaigns are exercises in endurance and discipline, which makes Gingrich unlikely to beat Romney in the end. But Gingrich unplugged can be impressive.
Michael Gerson, a Washington Post columnist, was a senior policy adviser and head speechwriter for President George W. Bush. Email: email@example.com.