Effective leaders—successful CEOs, presidents and legislators—get tough things done and can effect epic defining change, because they have that “X-factor.” An intangible quality and peculiar charisma—something apart from a trenchant understanding of the issues and technical competence—that motivates people to follow, accept discomforting choices, and overlook shortcomings in their background or character.
John Kennedy and Barack Obama possessed it, and each was elected with few legislative accomplishments and virtually no executive experience. Similarly, it permitted Bill Clinton to overcome Jennifer Flowers.
Mitt Romney has an admirable track record as a governor and business entrepreneur, and he understands the inner workings of government. Yet voters simply doubt he has what it takes.
The economy is Job One, and every poll shows Americans are strongly dissatisfied with President Obama’s performance. However, to wrestle the presidency from an incumbent and such an effective campaigner, the Republican nominee must demonstrate he has a strategy that will work and will implement it.
Mr. Romney’s platform is a “to do list” that Mr. Obama won’t do. Both men acknowledge the need to address the trade deficit with China and its undervalued currency, rev up domestic energy production, effectively reregulate the banks and encourage more lending, and pull down health care costs.
On China and the financial sector, Mr. Obama is too constrained by big Wall Street firms, who are making money in China, and don’t want their casino culture and big bonuses curbed. Along with the Silicon Valley, those significantly help finance many Democratic candidates.
On energy and health care, Mr. Obama does not want to upset the professional left who believe shifting oil and gas production from the Gulf to developing countries reduces environmental risks and recent reforms will bring down health care costs, even though the facts indicate otherwise.
Mr. Romney’s impressive economic platform outlines clearly what needs to be done and what he intends to do it, but voters simply doubt he believes and will do what he says.
Mr. Romney has changed his mind so many times on so many issues that he has to read his own talking points to remember where he stands. His penchant to please powerful constituencies by shifting his positions raises serious doubts that he will take the risks and bear the bruises necessary to confront entrenched interests and effect real change.
Mr. Romney’s whole campaign is premised on caution and making everyone happy, or at least as many folks happy as an intellectual contortionist can accomplish.
Enter Newt Gingrich—hardly attractive, too professorial and oh so irritating. Yet, people see a man who focuses on facts, reasons them through, and takes a stand and sticks to it, even when costly to his popularity.
Mr. Gingrich fears no one—even those who buy black ink by the barrel. He stood up to moderators who sought to turn the GOP debates into mud fights among candidates and generally embarrass them. He challenged the media and got away with it—something few public figures ever accomplish.
Repeatedly, Mr. Gingrich is the only significant GOP candidate to say the discomforting and take well-reasoned risks. He offers a policy toward illegal immigrants anchored in facts—the federal government simply can’t send back home millions who have lived, worked and paid taxes in the United States for decades, and shouldn’t compel them to live in legal netherworld.
So challenging nativist instincts too prominent among Republican primary voters, gleeful liberal analysts predicted his stance would sink his candidacy. Mr. Gingrich proceeded to open a double digit lead over Mr. Romney in the polls. The former has the facts and reason at his side, while the latter was being facile.
Mr. Gingrich’s platform on the economy, as well as other issues, closely parallels Mr. Romney, but voters know he means what he says and will do what he says—or impale himself trying.
Mr. Gingrich can say and do the things that make people uncomfortable, because they are confident that he acts on facts and principle.
Those qualities permitted Newt Gingrich to nationalize the 1994 Congressional elections, and win a stunning victory to become Mr. Speaker. Watch out, that is how he may well become Mr. President.
Peter Morici is a professor at the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland and former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission. Follow him on Twitter@pmorici1.