Newt Gingrich addresses a meeting of the Rotary Club during a campaign stop… (Scott Olson / Getty Images )
We're not accustomed to complimenting Newt Gingrich, but his statement that he wouldn't vote for Ron Paul for president in a general election is a refreshing departure from the cant and hypocrisy that characterize most political campaigns.
In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, the former speaker of the House gave a one-word answer to whether he would support the libertarian Texas congressman if he were the Republican nominee: "No." Gingrich elaborated on what he considered Paul's unfitness, referring to Paul's "systemic avoidance of reality." He also faulted Paul for not credibly disavowing newsletters published under his name that contained racist and anti-Semitic language.
Arguably, Gingrich's specific attacks on Paul are no more negative than what other Republicans are saying about one another. The still-developing Republican campaign has seen repeated breaches of the so-called 11th Commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican." But other candidates have savaged Paul, and others, without following through to the logical consequence of such criticism: that the candidates' flaws raise questions about their unsuitability for the presidency, not just the Republican nomination.
Granted, Gingrich hedged about whether he would vote for the incumbent in a Paul-Obama matchup, calling it a hard choice and dismissing the scenario as impossible. Never mind that President Obama's foreign policy is dramatically closer to Gingrich's positions than are Paul's isolationist views. Gingrich should have been clearer about the implications of his rejection of Paul. Someone with Gingrich's opinions would be irresponsible not to choose Obama over Paul.
That said, Gingrich has distinguished himself from other candidates who characterize — and caricature — their primary opponents as unfit, and then enthusiastically bury the hatchet when the reviled competitor becomes the nominee. Think of Hillary Rodham Clinton's notorious 2008 ad implicitly assailing Obama's national security credentials: "It's 3 a.m., and your children are safe and asleep. But there's a phone in the White House, and it's ringing — something's happening in the world. Your vote will decide who answers that call." Not only did Clinton predictably endorse Obama in the general election over John McCain, who had vastly more experience in foreign policy and national security, but she accepted Obama's offer to serve as secretary of State.
Clinton's turnabout makes sense if you conclude that her original overheated attack on Obama was insincere and the concoction of campaign consultants. But that's just the point. Such hypocrisy encourages cynicism among voters. Modest and politically safe as it may have been, Gingrich's rejection of Paul was a step toward candor.