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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson


Yesterday’s Candidate, Today’s Campaign

A good deal of the analysis of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s less-that-successful first days on the presidential campaign trail have focused on Newt’s “lack of message discipline” and whether the freewheeling former college professor can control his basic instinct to talk too much.

I think there may be something else at play that makes Gingrich’s race for the GOP nomination even more problematic. He is really yesterday’s kind of candidate trying to find his footing in today’s kind of campaign.

Political consultant Mark McKinnon said it well: “Elections are about the future, not the past. And Newt is anchored to another era.”

Jon Stewart wasn’t so kind. Newt is trying to hard to be cool, but his hash tags won’t get him there, Stewart said, in a savage take down of the old Gingrich.

Gingrich, his critics love to point out, has never been elected to anything – not including being elected by House Republicans as their leader – other than to represent a congressional district in Georgia. The last time he was on any ballot was 1998. Politics and campaigns have changed dramatically in the dozen years since Gingrich traded the daily inside game of Congress for the controlled environment of a Fox TV studio or the command and control of a hotel ballroom podium.

Even a guy who has been around as long as Gingrich needs to learn the rythem and the ropes of the modern campaign. It is a whole new ballgame out there.

When Gingrich last ran for anything Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, was 14 and still four years from Harvard. Twitter was nearly a decade away and YouTube wasn’t even an idea. Gingrich’s real problem isn’t just discipline, its age and agility.

Case in point. TIME reports that the Obama White House is doubling down on social media as it prepares for re-election.

In a story entitled, “Can they win one tweet at a time,” Michael Scherer writes: “When Barack Obama traveled to Texas this month to talk immigration, David Plouffe, his top message guru, decided to stay home and watch Twitter instead. While Obama spoke, Plouffe sat before two flat-screen televisions in the White House complex. One showed live footage of Obama in El Paso. The other flickered with a lightning-quick vertical ticker tape of people tweeting with the #immigration hashtag, reacting line by line to the President in real time. ‘I find it useful,’ Plouffe says, ‘to see what’s penetrating.'”

Gingrich must have thought he was out on the cutting edge by announcing his candidacy the other day via Twitter, but he may be confusing the tactics of social media with the mindset of a cutting edge campaign.

Gingrich made his now classic comment – “I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering” – to NBC’s David Gregory last Sunday morning. By Monday morning the pundits were chewing him up and by Tuesday, too slow for a modern campaign, he had started to address the criticism fellow Republicans were flinging his way.

Democrats wasted no time in producing the standard YouTube video – Litmus Test – dissecting Newt’s comments. Meanwhile, the candidate was in Iowa getting pelted with a bag of glitter with one crusty Iowan, captured on video, telling him to get out of the race before he made a bigger fool of himself.

Gingrich is the 21st Century equivalent of those pre-20th Century candidates who campaigned by never moving from the front porch of their homes. His mindset is 1998, while the rest of the political world is operating in cyberspace in 2011.

A true test of leadership is the ability to react effectively in a crisis, avoid the human inclination to blame someone else for your mistakes and reset the discussion. Newt and his handlers should have known his incendiary comments on Meet the Press would require immediate damage control. His spokesman should have refrained from one of the longest, bitterest denunciations of the media I’ve seen in a while and he should have tried something to change the arc of his story.

He did none of that and on the Thursday after he laid his egg on national television the Gingrich story, and particularly the video from his interview with Gregory, was still all over the air and the Internet.

There is a mindset in military history referred to as the tendency of leaders to “fight the last war.” It happens in politics, too, but those kinds of campaigns tend to end in the cold and snow of a February night in New Hampshire. We’ll see if Gingrich last that long and whether he can learn quickly to adapt to the kind of daily politics he’s never really played.

TIMEnotes in its piece on David Plouffe, Obama’s social media guru, that he just sometimes “creates his own news. For the recent White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Plouffe’s team created a fake movie trailer in the spirit of the Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech, hoping it might go viral. The YouTube video of Obama’s remarks has already been watched more than 8 million times, a bigger audience than that of most nightly network newscasts. “People saw that and said, ‘I am going to share it with my family and friends,'” Plouffe says proudly. “You have to find ways to compound what you are doing.”

Or…to counteract what you’ve messed up.

Mark McKinnon gets almost the last word on yesterday’s candidate. Newt Gingrich has earned, McKinnon says, a spot in the “hall of fame for disastrous political launches.”

Meanwhile, Gingrich is booked on at least one weekend talk show already. Good strategy. Keep this great week going a little longer.

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