- - Wednesday, November 16, 2011

America is a nation on the brink. The 2012 presidential election will not be between two candi- dates so much as between two ideas. Will Americans once again embrace the principles of limited government, individual liberty and free-market capitalism that made us great, or will we follow President Obama’s path of growing statism that leads to European-style socialism?

Republicans - conservatives in particular - should nominate not just a candidate who can beat Mr. Obama but one who understands the gravity of this choice and where America stands in the long arc of history.

As the Republican primary race narrows, one candidate has steadily, relentlessly since this summer climbed upward. Despite cringe-worthy missteps out of the gates, Newt Gingrich has since performed not just solidly, but formidably well. The former speaker’s impressive depth and breadth have been on display throughout the debates, including the recent Lincoln-Douglas-style debate with Herman Cain and his Fox News “Center Seat” performance.

Mr. Gingrich deserves another look from conservatives who once lauded and still benefit from his monumental accomplishments.

Balanced budgets: There are 15 trillion reasons to remind ourselves that Newt Gingrich is the only speaker of the House in the modern era who balanced the budget, four years in a row. The $15 trillion national debt and the $1.6 trillion deficit demand his type of resolve.

Vision: Even in the run-up to the historic 1994 elections, few dared imagine that Republicans could break the Democrats’ “permanent majority” in Congress until Mr. Gingrich’s two-decade strategy culminating in the Contract With America delivered victory. Today, Mr. Gingrich, perhaps better than any other candidate, understands that 2012 is about far more than simply getting the economy going. Americans have before them the opportunity to repudiate decades of sclerotic and moribund liberal policies in, as he puts it, the most consequential election since 1860.

Communication: A transformational president must have the capacity to change hearts and minds, and Mr. Gingrich has the extraordinary ability to explain complex ideas in simple ways without ever appearing simplistic. Peerless among contemporaries, he has a gift of communication that puts him in league with past conservative giants such as Ronald Reagan and Nobel economist Milton Friedman.

Campaign: Trailing candidates often deflect their campaign struggles by claiming, conveniently, that they are following a tortoise-and-hare strategy. For Mr. Gingrich, this may be true. He has thus far run a disciplined and methodical campaign that suggests he has the staying power needed for a marathon, not just a sprint.

Media: Mr. Gingrich recognizes that any Republican candidate faces two opponents: the Democratic nominee and the Washington press corps. He refuses to accept the false narratives posed by “the secondary opponent,” as he calls adversarial journalists. Like no one else in recent memory, he is adroit at not simply exposing or defusing the media’s false premises but at rendering them absurd on their face. He grows in stature with each failed assault by those detractors who are simply outclassed by him.

Debates: Mr. Gingrich has challenged Mr. Obama to seven so-called Lincoln-Douglas-style debates in which sound bites would be replaced with in-depth discussions. It’s hard to imagine that “the smartest guy ever to become president” - as liberals call Mr. Obama - could hold a candle to the gale force of Mr. Gingrich. Mr. Gingrich would tear through him like Michael Moore at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Heck, Mr. Gingrich should invite the president to bring his tele-prompters along. They won’t help.

Lighter baggage than purported: Until angels become eligible for the White House, we’ll have to settle for humans. True, Mr. Gingrich has been divorced, like Reagan before him. The heaviest stones cast at Mr. Gingrich, however, are also the most egregiously false. Liberals (and even some conservatives) have for years propagated the vile lie that the former speaker served his cancer-stricken wife with divorce papers on her deathbed. Outright false. Mr. Gingrich’s daughter, Jackie Cushman, courageously chose to address those private matters regarding a mother and father she loves in her recent column “Setting the record straight.” But don’t expect the media to apologize anytime soon.

Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Mr. Gingrich seems to take this to heart. In fact, he has devoted his energy to defending his primary opponents from unfair media attacks rather than piling on. He understands that a president’s appeal must transcend his adversaries’ shortcomings, real or imagined. What’s more, the party must be unified to win.

Admittedly, Mr. Gingrich has more work to do. He’s smart enough to defend his past mistakes, but is he wise enough simply to ask for forgiveness instead? He’s off to a good start. His reply when asked why he shared the infamous global-warming sofa with Nancy Pelosi: “That was the dumbest single thing I’ve done … inexplicable … just dumb.” Thank you, Newt. The correct next step would be to reject all taxpayer subsidies for “green” energy - including ethanol - that are premised on global warming. In a free market, every business should pay its own bills, and even someone as smart as President Gingrich shouldn’t choose favored industries.

Most politicians secretly believe they are the smartest people in any room. With Mr. Gingrich, it may be true, and therein lies perhaps his biggest challenge. Can he resist the autocratic temptation to pull those levers of government and provide a clever answer for every problem? Or instead, will he allow free Americans to lead their own lives?

Mitt Romney, ever the coiffed politician, is on a glide path to the nomination unless conservatives rally around one candidate. The time is now. Conservatives have long admired Newt Gingrich, but if that appeal is to shift from 20th-century atavism to 21st-century avant-garde, Mr. Gingrich must reach back and fully embrace the 18th-century ideals of limited government and individual liberty. Can he do it?

Dr. Milton R. Wolf, a Washington Times columnist, is a board-certified diagnostic radiologist and President Obama’s cousin. He blogs at miltonwolf.com.