Newt Gingrich says he’s not a traditional politician. He certainly isn’t running a traditional campaign for president. What the former House speaker lacks in campaign infrastructure, money, and a conventional rationale for his candidacy, he’s made up for in words—lots and lots of them. And he’s willing to talk to anyone who will listen, even Iowans not eligible to vote.
“My model is very different from most politicians,” Gingrich says. “Part of the reason is, I am really deeply concerned about understanding America and understanding what’s happening to it, both here and around the world.”
He’s speaking in the gymnasium at Osage Middle School to over 100 8th and 12th graders, and the conversation hits just about every topic, from developing leadership skills to the future of virtual reality entertainment to, of all things, endorphins. “Basically, they’re the chemicals in your brain that make you feel good,” he explains. “A runner’s high. People who run long enough, they get endorphins because that literally generates chemicals that make them feel good.”
Gingrich eventually gets around to talking about his policies and proposals. One student asks him how he plans on growing the American economy. “I would repeal the Dodd-Frank bill, which is killing small banks,” Gingrich says. “And I would repeal Sarbanes-Oxley, which adds a substantial amount of paperwork cost to the government.”
A particularly perceptive student asks Gingrich why he’s here talking with people who aren’t old enough to vote. It’s a good question. “Well, this is part of Iowa,” Gingrich replies. “And Iowa’s an important state. And I was asked to come here.”
He was, in fact, invited by the 14-year-old daughter of Republican state representative Josh Byrnes, who lives in Osage. She met Gingrich two weeks before, at a campaign event downstate, when he was in third or fourth place in most national polls, running out of money and time, haunted by the near-collapse of his campaign in early summer (“my political near-death experience,” he calls it).
Now, the Gingrich campaign is in full revival mode. National polls showed him steadily gaining on evergreen frontrunner Mitt Romney, as sexual harassment allegations started to chip away seriously at Herman Cain’s support. Last week, he pulled ahead in Iowa and even with Romney in one New Hampshire poll. At a campaign stop in Jefferson, the local Republican party co-chair even introduced Gingrich as the GOP’s “leading candidate” for president.
He’s in Iowa for his fifth visit since October, because there’s a very good chance he could win the caucuses here on January 3. A Rasmussen poll released November 17 showed Gingrich first among likely Republican caucusgoers with 32 percent support, 13 points ahead of Romney. That sound you hear is the endorphin rush in Gingrich’s brain.
“One of the lessons I learned this summer was how really dramatically different my approach is from the modern Republican consultant model,” Gingrich tells me in an interview.
His campaign stops would likely be a consultant’s nightmare. Gingrich ends an afternoon in Jefferson in central Iowa with a 10-minute policy-heavy disquisition on the benefits of public investment in brain science research. Down the road in Carroll, he eschews the opportunity to focus on the fundamentals of his stump speech and instead hosts a screening of one of his documentaries, Nine Days That Changed the World, about Pope John Paul II’s 1979 trip to Communist Poland. To factory workers at a farming equipment manufacturer in Sheffield, he expounds on his belief that the world is living in a period of “continuous modernization.”
Sometimes, the unconventional campaign of a citizen movement becomes difficult to follow. In Jefferson, Gingrich offers a confusing simile to illustrate the difficulty of getting accurate budget projections from the federal bureaucracy. “The Congressional Budget Office, to me, is so reactionary,” he says. “It’s like arguing with somebody about whether or not you have to score going from New York to Los Angeles by stagecoach, and therefore it takes 17 days, and they’re sitting on a plane with you, flying. And they say, ‘Well, I’m not sure the airplane’s real.’” Some laugh politely at what they take to be a punch line.
Or consider Gingrich’s infatuation with Lean Six Sigma, a business management strategy developed for efficiency in manufacturing. He’s convinced the process could be applied to the federal government and could save taxpayers $500 billion a year, though he doesn’t say how. Lean Six Sigma, Gingrich explains to the students in Osage, is “just a way of doing things.”
Those oddities aside, Gingrich is likely catching on in Iowa because he’s usually one of the most eloquent Republican critics of Obama-style liberalism—within both government and the media. The audience in Jefferson groans in angry disbelief when he relates a familiar story about a dentist in New York defrauding Medicaid by filing 991 procedures a day. “[This] dental office in Brooklyn,” Gingrich says, “had somebody who stood out front and said, ‘If you loan us your Medicaid card, we’ll give you a free DVD player.’ ”
Voters across the largely agricultural state cheer when Gingrich takes on the regulatory regime of the Environmental Protection Agency, particularly a recent, widely reported proposed rule on dust. Gingrich says he guesses the regulation was written by “some person who lived in a high-rise air-conditioned apartment, who went down to ride in an air-conditioned subway to go to a high-rise air-conditioned office building [and who] sat in his windowless office and imagined dust.” In a part of the country where farming the dry prairie is a way of life and everyone regularly stirs up a cloud of dust while driving down a dirt road, that’s steak-tartare-quality red meat.
And plenty of Iowa Republicans were watching the foreign policy debate in South Carolina on November 12, when Gingrich schooled CBS News anchor and debate moderator Scott Pelley on the propriety of treating American citizen-terrorists like Anwar al-Awlaki as combatants rather than as criminals. Gingrich took issue with Pelley’s assertion that al-Awlaki was merely a suspect and that the terrorist’s guilty sentence by panel was “extrajudicial” and not compliant with the rule of law.
“It is the rule of law,” Gingrich shot back.
That is explicitly false. It is the rule of law. If you engage in war against the United States, you are an enemycombatant. You have none of the civil liberties of the United States. You cannot go to court. No, let me be—let me be very clear about this. There are two levels. There is a huge gap here that, frankly, far too many people get confused over. Civil defense, criminal defense is a function of being within the American law. Waging war on the United States is outside criminal law. It is an act of war and should be dealt with as an act of war, and the correct thing in an act of war is to kill people who are trying to kill you.
But it isn’t all eye-roll-inducing anecdotes of bureaucratic incompetence and media malpractice. Gingrich has a challenge for voters, in Iowa and elsewhere.
“I do not ask anyone to be for me,” he likes to say.
Because if you’re for me, you’re going to vote and go home and say, “I sure hope Newt fixes it.” And that’s not possible. We’re in so much trouble, and there are going to be so many people opposed to what we’re doing that for us to succeed, we need to ask people to be with us for the next eight years, to stand side by side, to remind the Congress, to remind the governor, the state legislature, the city council, the county commissioner, and the school board. But also, at a very personal level, if we’re going to apply the Tenth Amendment and shrink the federal bureaucracy, we’re going to have to grow citizenship. You’re going to have to help fill the vacuum. This is going to be a very challenging period. I think, in some ways, maybe the most challenging period since 1860, because you have people in this country who want to make this country fundamentally different.
The Civil War era, like the Cold War era, features prominently in Gingrich’s rhetoric. He sees the solution to spiraling debt and a flagging economy at the end of a path of innovation and growth, a path “which Ronald Reagan followed, Margaret Thatcher followed in Britain, Abraham Lincoln followed in his domestic economic policy.”
“It’s no accident that in 1859, Abraham Lincoln came to Council Bluffs and looked West, and promised a transcontinental railroad,” Gingrich continues, the names and dates and places rolling off his tongue. “Because Lincoln as a child had walked from Kentucky to Indiana, and then as a young man he walked from Indiana into Illinois. And I was thinking as I flew down from Chicago this morning, ‘Now, if you had to walk all that distance, you really valued railroads.’ And they were like magic. They were the technology of his generation. And he got it. Well, we need to go back to that kind of attitude, that kind of positive thinking.”
Gingrich sees himself as a continuation of the history he loves to invoke.
“The real pedigree of this campaign is Goldwater in ’62 to ’64, and then Reagan from ’75 to ’80 in that they were idea-generated movements which evolved into a campaign,” he tells me. “They weren’t campaigns in the traditional Republican meaning of the word. And I think that’s essentially what we’re trying to do.”
Ultimately, it’s the Gingrichian way with facts, figures, and ideas that most endears him to these voters. Ask him a question, any question, and he has an answer ready. Republicans here talk about their political fantasy: Gingrich debating Obama at 20 paces, no teleprompters. The breadth of knowledge Gingrich deploys seems impressive, even if the audience may not know what, exactly, he’s talking about.
“One of my proposals is to have a tax code and a regulatory code and a litigation code which makes it very desirable to be in the United States,” he says to a question about outsourcing. “One of the provisions in my tax bill is for 100 percent expensing, which means if you buy new equipment you can write it off in a year. So if you’re a farmer and you buy a new building to house your grain in from harvest, you literally can write the whole cost off on your taxes in one year. So, you can actually dramatically accelerate the modernization of American products.”
The students sitting in the bleachers at Osage Middle School stare out blankly as they weather Gingrich’s onslaught of ideas. Their resigned faces seem to say, Sounds good to me.
Michael Warren is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.