Now that Donald Trump is becoming more dependent on outside counsel for advice, he appears to be slowly morphing into a more conventional presidential candidate. And as he mulls over his options for a running mate, he’s being urged to pick Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the most boring, check-the-box finalist. Pence would indeed be the safe choice for Trump, offering an olive branch to shunned conservatives and raising the likelihood of a respectable loss.
But if Trump actually wants to win the election, he’d be best-served thinking outside of the box. In that respect, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich would be the go-for-the-fences political choice—even though many establishment-minded Republicans view him as a manic, unpredictable talking head with an ego the size of Cleveland’s cavernous and now-demolished Municipal Stadium. What Trump needs, however, is a running mate who can translate his bluster into high-minded rhetoric. Just as Bill Clinton did for President Obama at the 2012 convention, Gingrich would be masterful as Trump’s secretary of “explaining stuff.” And his history fighting the Clintons gives him the credibility and political standing that others lack.
Pence, by contrast, doesn’t excel in any individual area. He’s in his first term as Indiana’s governor, but suffers from mediocre approval ratings and is at risk of losing his reelection bid. He boasts close relationships with evangelicals, but lost some standing with them after failing to pass religious-freedom legislation. He offered a lukewarm endorsement to Ted Cruz before the Indiana primary, a sign that he wouldn’t be the most effective or steadfast surrogate for Trump. At best, Pence is a respected, well-liked executive with ties to Washington who could unite all factions of the Republican Party. At worst, Pence will be a cipher because anti-Trump diehards aren’t about to change their minds.
The best choice for Trump would a nonwhite female officeholder from a swing state. But Trump’s campaign manager has shunned such advice as identity politics, and the most promising contenders already took themselves out of the running. So prospects such as South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez started out as personae non grata.
Since Trump is only looking at a narrow range of contenders, Gingrich offers a great deal of upside. He brings the Washington experience that Trump says he values, with the unpredictability that matches Trump’s personality. His penchant for contrarianism might be a headache for a more traditional candidate, but for Trump his presence on the ticket could add gravitas. In many ways, he is exactly what Trump needs right now. The mood of the country should favor the party out of power, but Trump is widely considered unsuitable for the presidency and he needs someone to shore up his weaknesses.
Gingrich’s detractors point to his low favorability ratings after he exited the Republican primary in 2012. But that was right after he was subjected to nonstop attack ads from the Romney camp without having the resources to fight back. Four years later, he’ll be in greater control of his own image. If he makes inclusive comments as he did about African-Americans’ perspective of policing, he’ll have a chance to turn around his own image and soften Trump’s rough edges. But if he rambles on about futurism instead of staying on message, he would risk being dismissed as a flake.
It’s not as if Gingrich’s rivals for the ticket are more popular. Pence’s job approval was a mediocre 42 percent in the NBC/Marist poll conducted before the state’s May primary, with 41 percent disapproving. (One rumored reason for his interest in the Trump ticket is the fear that he’d lose his reelection bid.) New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is in worse shape. A recent Fairleigh Dickinson poll showed his job approval at 26 percent, with disapproval at 62 percent—even worse than Trump’s dismal numbers. Gingrich, being out of politics for several years, has a much more malleable public image.
The other unconventional option for Trump is picking a total political outsider, likely from the military. Former Defense Intelligence Agency Director Michael Flynn would give Trump some of the foreign policy credibility that his campaign badly lacks. But as a registered Democrat, Flynn’s positions on most domestic issues are unknown. In a bumbling interview on ABC’s This Week, he sounded supportive of abortion rights and gay marriage—nonstarters for much of the GOP base. Unlike elected officials, he’s barely been vetted, making his selection highly risky. It would be the equivalent of John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin in 2008.
Under normal circumstances, Gingrich wouldn’t be a go-to guy. At 73, he doesn’t fit the traditional profile of an up-and-coming political prospect. But this isn’t a normal election. Given Trump’s need for a Washington veteran and a creative communicator to offset his weaknesses, Gingrich would be the smartest selection for a highly unconventional candidate.