Illustration by Tim Lahan
Illustration by Tim Lahan

We want a revolution. We need a revolution. So let’s get a revolutionary. Hence the sudden support for Newt Gingrich in the presidential primaries.

From Social Security to Iranian nuclear power, Gingrich articulates better than any other candidate what’s wrong with U.S. policy and how to change it.

But Gingrich fans may want to recall a second fact: Revolutions require enormous outlays of political capital. That means there’s none left over to squander on personal scandal. Too much squandering and no revolution.

The question therefore is whether Gingrich appreciates that capital sufficiently or whether, as president, he would merely squander it. To understand the stakes, it helps to review the squandering on all sides in the period of Gingrich’s previous revolution: the Republican Revolution of the 1990s.

Remember the ambitions at the start of that decade. The Democrats were led by President Bill Clinton, who sought his own kind of revolution: conservative on welfare but radical on health care. The Republicans, led by Gingrich, gained control of the House of Representatives by offering the Contract with America, which included a change in the law to make taxes hard to raise, an amendment to balance the budget and reforms of government budgeting methods.

The first squandering was by Clinton himself. The president was already under investigation for the Whitewater real-estate investments back in Arkansas. The chief executive needed to clear his name of scandal to pursue his legislative agenda. Instead Clinton was diverted by Monica Lewinsky. That scandal, in turn, prevented him from completing policy aims, including Social Security reform. That was a particular shame because the Grand Old Party and the Democrats shared much common ground.

Reputation Staking

Speaker Gingrich and other Republicans then squandered their political capital by staking their own reputations on support for social conservatism. They attacked Clinton rather than pushing harder for new laws, especially on Social Security. Look back at the 1990s and you will see plenty of capital spent on bringing down Clinton through Whitewater, and too little work on the minutiae of entitlement fixes.

The Republicans then squandered yet more capital by trashing their own reputation as righteous social conservatives through their own personal behavior.

That was especially true of Gingrich, who hurt the credibility of the entire party by divorcing his wife to marry Callista Bisek, a Capitol Hill employee. Welfare reform, symbolic but small, did become law. Budget and Social Security reforms, much more important, failed.

The point is not whether one approves or disapproves of Gingrich’s divorces or Clinton’s dallying. It is that these politicians, by wasting time on unserious activities, showed a fundamental disregard for those who elected them to carry out the policy goals.

At the time, it was possible to tell ourselves that none of this squandering mattered. The conservative storyline was that the failed prosecution of Whitewater represented a Machiavellian disabling of Clinton, preventing him from passing a left-wing health-care law. The economy didn’t seem to suffer. The budget was balanced, at least for few years.

But today, we can see a cost to the incomplete 1990s revolution. Fundamental changes on taxes and budgets would be valuable today. Our entire political outlook would be more sanguine if we could tell ourselves that Social Security reform was already accomplished.

The next president will have to focus so hard on policy that he’ll have no time for marital trouble or explanations of questionable consulting contracts. In fact, he’ll have to be downright allergic to scandal.

Value in Sanctimony

Some presidents are just born allergic. Barack Obama seems to be one of them; that’s the value in his sanctimony. Another scandal-averse leader was Calvin Coolidge, who became president in an era of great squandering, that by his predecessor, Warren Harding. Coolidge managed to husband political capital and avoid scandal at all cost.

The extent of Coolidge’s scandal allergy becomes clear in a story from the period after the presidency. One day the former president was standing nearby as his secretary opened a box that arrived at his law office in Northampton, Massachusetts. The secretary, Herman Beaty, lifted out a diamond bracelet, just the kind of thing that might become Coolidge’s wife, Grace Coolidge, an olive-skinned beauty.

“He treated that bracelet as if it were a scorpion,” Beaty later recalled, ordering it packed up and sent back by return mail, “taking care that there were ample witnesses to its return.”

It’s a cute anecdote, but it also tells you why Coolidge had been able to push the marginal tax rate down to a level Gingrich would be proud of, 25 percent. He never squandered.

The promise of Gingrich depends on one of two possibilities. The first is that personal scandal doesn’t matter anymore. Gingrich’s victory in a primary after his ex-wife unloaded the details of their divorce on national TV like a load of laundry suggests that might be possible. But over the years Americans have cared so much about personal consistency that it is hard to imagine they are completely turning now. A second hope for conservatives is that Gingrich, if he prevails over Mitt Romney, will live such a picture-perfect life in the future that his past will fade from view.

If you don’t see either of these prospects as realistic, then your support for Gingrich depends on how much you want a revolution.

(Amity Shlaes is a Bloomberg View columnist and the director of the Four Percent Growth Project at the Bush Institute. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.

To contact the writer of this article: Amity Shlaes at amityshlaes@hotmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.