GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has had a bad week. On Sunday, he criticized GOP Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan to phase out Medicare as “social engineering,” prompting party leaders to declare his candidacy dead only days after he officially announced it, and forcing Gingrich to personally apologize to Ryan. On Tuesday, Politico reported that Gingrich at one point had a six-figure tab at Tiffany’s, the high-end jewlery store. He had a box of glitter dumped on his head at a fundraiser for the anti-gay group Minnesota Family Council. And he co-starred in a viral video clip in which an Iowa Republican encourages him to get out of the race “before you make a bigger fool of yourself.”
Not good times, in other words, if you’re Newt Gingrich.
So how did things get so bad so fast?
The emerging consensus seems to be that Gingrich’s problems stem from a lack of discipline—his tendency to flip from one idea to the next, possibly contradictory idea, without properly explaining himself. As Rich Galen, a former Gingrich aide, told Mike Allen: “This is what people in Washington knew would be the great weakness of a Newt presidential campaign: that he would say whatever came into his head, the moment it came into his head.”
That’s true-ish; Gingrich is not incredibly disciplined. But the more fundamental problem is this: The things that Newt Gingrich says are very frequently kind of nuts, and members of both parties seem to agree. The problem isn’t so much that he can’t keep straight whether the country is under assault from a “gay and secular fascism” or an atheist–Islamist agenda; it’s that he thinks either one of those is a distinct possibility. There’s a real tendency in covering electoral politics to blame campaign implosions on “discipline.” Writing last week on former Virginia GOP Sen. George Allen’s comeback bid, for instance, the Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza explained that Allen’s famous use of the obscure racial slur “macaca” demonstrated “a lack of discipline on Allen’s part.” (Another way of looking at it, given that Allen once kept an actual noose in his office, is that George Allen has, or at least had, a race problem.)
Discipline is a good quality for a candidate to have. But it only counts if you have a quality candidate.