Scenes from the Gingrich Campaign
Don't rule out Newt in 2008.
Mar 19, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 26 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
Gingrich has a lot going for him. He has taken no apparent steps to run for president--he has no presidential exploratory committee, for example--but still comes in third, behind former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Arizona senator John McCain, in every national Republican presidential poll. Gingrich also places third, behind McCain and Giuliani, in the RealClearPolitics average of Iowa polls; he comes in fourth, behind McCain, Giuliani, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, in the average of New Hampshire polls. Fortune magazine reported in November that an "internal GOP poll" had Gingrich running second nationwide. The right-wing group Citizens United recently conducted a straw poll among its donors; Gingrich won with 31 percent.
Gingrich continues to enjoy a gut connection with Republican voters. Back in 2005, consultant Frank Luntz held focus groups in Iowa and New Hampshire on the Republican candidates. In a report published afterward, Luntz wrote, "We were genuinely surprised by the strongly favorable reaction" to Gingrich's "speeches and interviews." According to Luntz, voters ignored, or in some cases forgot, the controversial nature of Gingrich's speakership. "The words he spoke were like nothing they had heard from anyone else," Luntz went on. "While he didn't start either session with any measurable support, he ended both Iowa and New Hampshire sessions with the most new converts." Out of office, Gingrich has remained largely insulated from the scandals and debacles of the Bush Republicans. In fact, the 2006 midterm election results could be viewed as confirmation of what Gingrich has been saying for some time: that the Republican party and broader conservative movement have lost their way, and the time has come for a rebirth of the reform impulse that in 1994 brought the GOP to congressional majority status for the first time in 40 years.
The current state of the Republican presidential field also works to Gingrich's advantage. None of the top-tier candidates--Giuliani, McCain, Romney--is entirely acceptable to the right. Nor has anyone among the lower-tier conservatives--Kansas senator Sam Brownback, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, California congressman Duncan Hunter, former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore--vaulted into contention. So Gingrich, sitting in third place in national polls and gleaning free media speculation about his intentions, sucks up all the remaining oxygen in the race. And with good reason. As the primary strategist behind the Republican capture of the House of Representatives in 1994, Gingrich has as much a claim to the "movement conservative" candidate title as anybody.
It helps that this is a multi-candidate race, with no incumbent and with the declared candidates squabbling for the right's support. Over the next six months each of the Republicans running for president will work to tear down his opponents. By opting for a late entry into the race, Gingrich avoids becoming a target--until voters are so exhausted by this already wearying campaign that they go searching for a fresh face. "He'll be a catalytic factor, and in many ways a good one," says Republican consultant Mike Murphy.
Among Republicans, the current wisdom concerning Gingrich has two parts. The first is that, come September, Gingrich will in fact decide to enter the race. "These guys always run," Murphy says. "It's what they do. It's like chimps picking up bananas. They can't help it." The second part is that Gingrich's impact will be limited to the presidential primary debates. Gingrich's understanding of conservative Republicans, this line of thinking goes, combined with his rhetorical powers, may set the terms of discussion and win support, but ultimately voters will choose to vote for either McCain, Giuliani, or Romney. Still, after watching Gingrich dominate the debates, conservative Republicans might just say to themselves, Why not . . . Newt?
"I think Newt's about nailed this," says Republican lobbyist Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996. "But when it comes to having an impact in the race . . . time will tell. This is a guy who doesn't need a big infrastructure. He's kind of a one-man band. He understands how to make news, he understands how to exploit his opponents' political weaknesses, and he's a happy warrior." Most important, Reed says, Gingrich has "always understood how to make a dramatic entry into politics."
Nothing is guaranteed, of course. It's possible Gingrich won't enter the race at all. And if he does, success is by no means assured. Gingrich may turn out to be great at thinking about running for president, but not so great at actually mounting a campaign. "Newt has never run for president and has never been closely associated with a presidential campaign," says one D.C.-based Republican consultant. "I don't see how you raise the money to become competitive. Gephardt won Iowa in 1988, came second in New Hampshire, but couldn't take advantage of it because he didn't have the money. If they don't have any money to build on their victory, it won't be of much use."
Even the skeptics append caveats to their predictions, however. You never know. . . . Stranger things have happened. . . . So: There is the chance, however small, that Newt Gingrich, should he choose to run, will wake up one morning in February 2008 the presumptive Republican nominee for president of the United States of America.
And what would happen then?
The idea for the Cooper Union debate originated not long ago, during a conversation Gingrich was having with Barry Casselman, a conservative columnist. Gingrich has been studying Lincoln for some time; he devoured Holzer's book and plugged it constantly, and last year he read a book by Ronald White, The Eloquent President, about Lincoln's use of language. A Lincoln Inspired Event made some sense. It would allow the speaker to impart the lessons he had learned from his study of the sixteenth president. And it would be an appropriate capstone to what might best be described as a two-year-long public relations blitz, the goal of which has been nothing less than the rehabilitation of Gingrich's image.
There was a period when Republicans weren't so enamored with Gingrich. By the time he announced his retirement from Congress after the 1998 midterm elections, Gingrich's towering ego--he once scrawled a note in which he described himself as "leader (possibly) of the civilizing forces" in the battle to renew "American civilization"--and his combative, quirky managerial style had alienated most of his caucus. And while Gingrich knew many of the men and women who would assume top positions in the Bush administration, including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, during the 2000 campaign candidate Bush had made it a point to repudiate the Republican Congress, saying, "I don't think they ought to balance their budget on the backs of the poor."
Suddenly Gingrich had become the Republicans' prodigal son. Out of office, newly married to his third wife--with whom last week Gingrich admitted to having an affair during the Clinton intern scandal--he was in political exile. But the exile kept busy. He founded Gingrich Communications, which handled his many lucrative speaking engagements. He created the Center for Health Transformation, a for-profit think tank devoted to fixing the health care system. He joined the American Enterprise Institute and became a political analyst for the Fox News Channel. And every so often he would surface--from the depths--and generate headlines: his attack on the State Department in the spring of 2003, his advocacy of Bush's prescription drug entitlement later that year, his disavowal of L. Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, his scathing criticism of the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, his attack on Rep. Tom DeLay and the other K Street Conservatives--many of whom had been his friends and allies--in the run-up to the 2006 elections, and his pronouncement last summer that America had entered World War III.
Gingrich, like many political exiles, is a prolific writer. Always a voluminous reader, in retirement he became one of Amazon.com's top book reviewers. (He's also written reviews for this magazine.) And he has continued to write novels, alternative histories in which the forces of American civilization face down counterfactual adversity and ultimately triumph over evil. He's written two books on health policy in consultation with his associates at the Center for Health Transformation. He's written a book called Rediscovering God in America. But most important is his Winning the Future, published by Regnery in 2005, a bestseller that doubles as a policy agenda.
Winning the Future is the latest title in what might be called Gingrichiana, a literary genre that began with the publication of the future speaker's Window of Opportunity in 1984 and continued through the then-speaker's To Renew America. A Ph.D. in European history from Tulane, Gingrich has made no secret of his intellectual mentors: futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler, management gurus Peter Drucker, W. Edwards Deming, and Joseph M. Juran; and a shelf-full of military theorists and historians. Gingrich's published writings are a condensed soup of all these thinkers. They are written in the format of management tomes--using headings like "The Five Pillars of American Civilization" and "The Six Challenges Facing America" or the bullet points and short section titles that make Winning the Future assume the character of a PowerPoint presentation--but at times read like science fiction. "We have no notion at present what benefits might accrue by interfacing a mentally retarded child and the right computer system," Gingrich writes in Window of Opportunity; "in a zero-gravity environment, a paraplegic can float as easily as anyone else."
Depending on one's point of view, by the end of these books Gingrich reveals himself as either a visionary or a pretender, a world-historical figure or a goof playing at the highest levels of national politics. Republicans--and Gingrich--tend to adopt the more favorable view. What no one can deny, however, is Gingrich's mastery of political language, his ability to appropriate words that connect with people's aspirations and fears, his ear for terms that resonate deeply in the mind and heart. Opportunity, prosperity, patriotic, winning, future, transformation, decay, system, evolution, appeasement, change. Gingrich combines them with his favorite adjectives and adverbs. Stunning, dramatically, fundamentally, very.
"We live in a country that since 1932 has been dominated by the left," Gingrich said recently. He had a specific type of domination in mind. "The language of academics is on the left, the language of the news media is on the left, the language of politics is on the left, the language of bureaucrats is on the left." The Gingrich achievement can be found in his deployment of an alternative conservative rhetoric, a language that, to a certain right-of-center ear, is nothing less than hypnotic. Of course, whether this talent for finding the right words for the right audience can catapult a man into the Republican presidential nomination is another question entirely.
"There are operatives in politics, and there are candidates," says Mike Murphy. "Newt is an operative. Not a candidate."
"Whether it's strengthening our national security and intelligence-gathering agencies," David Bossie explains, "reforming the United Nations, or transforming entitlement programs, Newt Gingrich never stops asking the tough questions." Bossie is the president of the conservative group Citizens United. He used to work on Capitol Hill during the 1990s. But nothing could prepare him for this, the Regency Ballroom at the Omni Shoreham hotel in the Woodley Park neighborhood of Washington, standing at a lectern in front of an audience of thousands of young conservatives--mostly boys, mostly white, a sea of blue blazers and pink jowls interspersed with stolid martial types in uniform--introducing the final, and most anticipated, speaker of the 2007 Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC.
"Equally important," Bossie is saying, Gingrich "never retreats from confronting tough answers. This, my friend, is leadership." Bossie looks at the crowd, which is standing room only, people tripping over each other to get into this cramped, muggy, shabby ballroom. The kids, with their digital cameras and cell phones, were taking pictures of Gingrich a few minutes before, when he entered from the back of the room and was mobbed like a rock star as he made his way onstage. "Since his time as speaker he's donned many hats: chairman of the Gingrich Group, political analyst for Fox News Channel, bestselling author, among other distinguished credentials," Bossie says. "But perhaps his most important service that he can provide to his country is yet to come."
The conservative swarm is enraptured. A few moments ago, when Gingrich entered, they chanted Newt Newt Newt. None of the declared 2008 Republican presidential candidates who spoke to CPAC received such a response. Not Giuliani, not Romney, not Brownback--and of course not McCain, who skipped the conference for some fundraisers and the mention of whose name summons boos! from the crowd.
It's the Saturday after the Cooper Union debate, and Gingrich ditches the serious adult conversation talk he deployed in New York in favor of some Red-America red-meat right-wing oratory. The first thing he does is invoke every conservative's hero. "We all stand on President Reagan's shoulders," Gingrich says, "and we stand on the achievements of the Contract With America, and therefore, I want to propose, that we add to Governor Reagan's call for bold colors, that we need bold solutions based on those bold colors, and then we need to go out to the American people and have an idea-oriented, positive dialogue.
"And I want to be very clear here--because I've been active as a conservative a long time--I'm perfectly happy for all of you who want to spend a lot of time and energy to find ways attacking Sen. Clinton. And I know it will make you feel good. We will not--we will not--defeat the Clinton machine by being negative, we will defeat the Clinton machine by offering better solutions, based on better values, with a deeper reach into the American people's minds and psyche and history, and it is by representing the future of the American people that we will defeat the left, because it can offer no successful future."
The portly fellow toward the back of the room in the Jack Abramoff-like black fedora takes off his hat, the look on his face saying, Wow!
"Other than that, I'm not going to think about the presidential campaign until the 30th of September"--G-Day--"for practical reasons," Gingrich says. "We have created an organization called American Solutions for Winning the Future. We are going to be hosting, on September 27 nationwide, workshops aimed at creating transformational change across the entire country. Those workshops will be on the Internet. That is the anniversary of the Contract With America, and here's the principle. . . . The Oval Office isn't big enough. There are 511,000 elected officials in the United States. . . . This is about big principles, based on big values, to create big solutions."
One professional conservative--who's probably attended at least 25 of these annual conferences--leans forward on his tippy toes, absorbed in the scene.
"Liberals don't understand this," Gingrich says. "We have this goose that lays the golden egg. It's called the American economy. It's entrepreneurs. It's science and technology. It's markets. It's competition. It's the most explosively powerful system in the world. We are dramatically bigger than China, we are dramatically bigger than India, we are dramatically bigger than Japan, we are dramatically more dynamic than Europe--and of course the answer from the left is, 'But couldn't we be more like France?'"
Ha ha ha ha!
The speech winds on. Gingrich gesticulates. His manner is calm but determined. He starts biting his lower lip whenever he pauses, just like his doppelgänger Bill Clinton. He grows quiet. The room grows quiet.
Gingrich says, "I want to close with this thought, but I want all of you to take this home. When Ronald Reagan came to CPAC in the 1970s, the Soviet Empire was on the march, and the threat was very real. Jimmy Carter didn't believe that. Jimmy Carter represented a left-wing mentality of disarmament and weakness, and as a result the United States attempted weakness in the Middle East. We had a 444-day hostage crisis, we had an American ambassador killed in Afghanistan and an American embassy burned in Pakistan, our position was decaying around the world. . . .
"The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, they had forces they supported in Mozambique, Angola, Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador, they were subsidizing a huge peace movement in Western Europe--direct payment, we now know, because we got the records--and people were shattered. And our elites were terrified. And Ronald Reagan came along, and a reporter said to him, 'What is your vision of the Cold War?' And he said, 'We win, they lose.'"
Clap clap clap! Most of the people in this room were not alive during the period Gingrich is recalling--but it's not too hard for anyone to see parallels between that time and our own.
Meanwhile, Gingrich is deadly serious.
"For our generation, a simple translation of that is this: We want America, and America's allies, to be safe, and we want America's enemies to be defeated, and we need a national debate to establish the parameters for that kind of effective national strategy. Thank you and God bless you."
It's not so simple a translation, actually. Nonetheless the audience leaps to its feet.
Newt Newt Newt!
"America the Beautiful" resounds throughout the ballroom. The mood is celebratory--triumphal. The prodigal son, the revolutionary hero, the leader (possibly) of the civilizing forces--he has returned . . . and the countdown to G-Day has begun.
Matthew Continetti is associate editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.