Few people have dominated speculation about Donald Trump’s vice presidential selection process like Newt Gingrich. The former House speaker topped a Politico poll of GOP insiders recently, and the Washington Post’s Robert Costa and Karen Tumulty reported on Thursday that he is viewed inside the Trump campaign as the leading contender.
While Gingrich has played coy and insisted that he’s received no calls asking if he’s interested (and others have thrown cold water on the Costa/Tumulty report), he is in some ways a very strong choice. He has decades of experience in the House and participated in policymaking at the highest levels in the 1990s, filling the most glaring gap in Trump’s résumé. But has also been more loyal to Trump than most Republicans, defending him passionately against press criticism.
Also, Gingrich isn’t too close to establishment Republicans, since he harbors residual bitterness over being forced out of the speakership in 1998, has spent years out of office, and ran against Mitt Romney in 2012. Plus, he’s more experienced than just about anyone at battling the Clintons.
But Gingrich’s weaknesses are also considerable. Like almost every Republican, he has a track record of statements that directly contradict Trump’s positions and undermine his most prized policy commitments. He has decades’ worth of baggage that Trump would be forced to defend on top of his own. And he does basically nothing to appeal to the kinds of voters Trump needs to improve upon Romney’s performance with if he’s to have any chance this fall.
The case for picking Gingrich
Perhaps the best reason for selecting Gingrich is that he’s friends with Trump — and jibing well with the nominee on a personal level is an underrated element in a good VP pick. As Jim Newell notes at Slate, Romney picked Paul Ryan last time largely because they got along great, and Hillary Clinton’s personal coolness toward Elizabeth Warren is a major factor reducing the latter’s odds of getting the VP slot.
"I regard Donald as an old friend," Gingrich told Bill O’Reilly earlier this year, adding that he and his wife Callista "have regularly talked with [Trump] for the last five or six years."
That relationship has reportedly amped up as the general election began in earnest. National Review's Eliana Johnson quoted a Trump campaign source in May reporting that Trump and Gingrich "talk every day," with Gingrich shooting off "countless emails" daily to Trump, campaign chair Paul Manafort, and now-deposed campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Another aide told Johnson, "Right from the minute I joined we were told that Newt will have his hand in every major policy effort."
Gingrich has also shown a mastery of Trumpian talking points. In an interview with Slate’s Isaac Chotiner, he rebutted criticisms of Trump’s weak foreign policy team by insisting Chotiner read The Art of the Deal and Art of the Comeback: "Here was a guy on the cover of Time magazine in 1989, who had the No. 1 best-selling business book in the 1980s, had the No. 1 television show. There is a rumor that I cannot verify that NBC was offering him $12 million per episode … You are talking about a guy who was smart enough to build Trump Towers, build lots of hotels, build lots of casinos, and own the Miss Universe contest."
The former speaker has also demonstrated a Trumpian willingness to buck the entitlement cutting tendencies of current congressional Republicans. Gingrich famously denounced the Paul Ryan budget as "right-wing social engineering," saying its conversion of Medicare from a single-payer system to a voucherized one was too drastic a shift. Trump, meanwhile, has capitalized throughout the campaign on the fact that defending Social Security and Medicare from cuts is extremely popular by base Republican voters, even if elites are enthusiastic about entitlement reform.
The two also share a philosophy on terrorism, with Gingrich getting in on the "Obama is a coward for not saying ‘radical Islam’" game years before Trump. "One of our biggest mistakes in the aftermath of 9/11 was naming our response to the attacks 'the war on terror' instead of accurately identifying radical Islamists (and the underlying ideology of radical Islamism) as the target of our campaign," he wrote all the way back in 2010, while arguing against the establishment of a mosque in lower Manhattan.
Last but not least, Trump has shown a strong appetite for reviving '90s-era attacks on Hillary Clinton and her husband, and no one knows that playbook better than Gingrich, the Clinton administration’s prime opponent from 1994 to 1998. Beyond his ability to revive Clintonian scandals, Gingrich also provides a counterargument to the Clintons’ claim that they caused an economic boom whose benefits were widely shared. Gingrich can claim that, no, it was him and his allies in Congress who forced fiscal discipline and capital gains tax cuts, and that that was what caused the boom. This is, er, totally wrong, but it’s at least a workable rhetorical counter to one of the best arguments Clinton has going for her.
The case against picking Gingrich
While Gingrich has been more loyal to Trump than most Republicans, he’s still criticized Trump on occasion. In his conversation with Chotiner in March, he conceded that Trump is "too strong in talking about illegal immigrants in general."
More consequentially, though, he refused to have Trump’s back when Trump was attacking Judge Gonzalo Curiel and saying Curiel’s Mexican heritage should disqualify him from judging Trump. "I don't know what Trump's reasoning was, and I don't care. His description of the judge in terms of his parentage is completely unacceptable," Gingrich told the Washington Post. On Fox News Sunday, Gingrich elaborated and said attacking Curiel was "one of the worst mistakes Trump has made," adding, "I think it's inexcusable."
Trump did not take this display of disloyalty well. He told Fox & Friends that he was "surprised at Newt. I thought it was inappropriate what he said." It probably wasn’t enough to rule Newt out of consideration entirely, but considering that a lot of the VP’s job will be sticking up for Trump when he inevitably says indefensible things for the rest of the campaign, Gingrich’s hesitance to stick up for his candidate in one of the most notable cases like that to date sticks out, and suggests he might not be the loyal attack dog Trump’s looking for.
Gingrich’s past policy record is also an imperfect fit with Trump’s platform. In particular, Gingrich has always been an enthusiastic supporter of free trade. In 2011, the free-market Club for Growth group released a white paper reviewing Gingrich’s record, and concluded, "Evidence of any pro-protectionism support is scant."
Notably, Gingrich backed permanent normal trade relations for China, paving the way for its entry into the World Trade Organization. If Congress members voted against PNTR, he warned, it could "turn out to be the most destructive single vote of a member’s congressional career."
By contrast, Donald Trump recently declared that Chinese membership in the WTO "enabled the greatest jobs theft in history." Trump also argued that NAFTA was the "worst trade deal in history," but Gingrich voted for it in 1993.
Gingrich is also notably softer on immigration than Trump. In 2011 he caught flack from other Republican candidates for advocating a "humane" policy of limited deportations and a path to legal status, but not citizenship, for undocumented immigrants. In the House, he voted for the 1986 immigration reform bill that legalized about 3 million undocumented immigrants.
In 2013, he argued that Republicans had to become more pro-immigration, writing, "Are we really going to deport all 12 million people, many of whom have deep ties here? … It is difficult to understand how someone running for President of the United States, a country with more than 50 million Hispanic citizens, could fail to acknowledge that the American people should not take grandmothers who have been here 25 years, have deep family and community ties —and forcibly expel them." Mass deportation, he elaborated, "would constitute a level of inhumanity the American people would never accept."
Of course, that "level of inhumanity" is exactly what Trump is promising should he be elected. It’s hard to imagine the Gingrich who wrote those words three years ago defending Trump’s immigration proposals on the campaign trail.
Gingrich also exacerbates one of Trump’s less-touted weaknesses: his history of adultery, and two divorces. Gingrich is also on his third marriage, leading Ed Rollins, a longtime Republican operative and strategist for a pro-Trump Super PAC, to joke, "It’d be a ticket with six former wives, kind of like a Henry VIII thing." Gingrich’s past is particularly troubling from a campaign perspective, because his affair with his now-wife, which lasted his entire period as House speaker, undermines any moral high ground he might try to claim over the Clintons.