The historian Newt Gingrich was wrapping up a history lesson reminding South Carolina Republicans of his political accomplishments. “You’re right, I think grandiose thoughts,” he concluded. “This is a grandiose country of big people doing big things and we need leadership prepared to take on big projects.”
It is tempting to ridicule the Bigness of Newt, as Rick Santorum did in eliciting this immodest soliloquy from the former House speaker. “Grandiosity has never been a problem with Newt Gingrich,” Santorum cracked. “He handles it very well.” Gingrich’s grandiosity is starting to wear well with a Republican primary electorate tired of the small-ball conservative initiatives of the Bush years or the calculated banality of scripted Mitt Romney.
Gingrich follows no script. Instead he follows an adage: Go big or go home. When his campaign was broke, when his aides were defecting en masse to frontrunner du jour Rick Perry (remember him?), when the Washington journalists had all filed their political obituaries, it looked like Gingrich was going to go home. Now he is bigger than ever, coming off a decisive victory in South Carolina and threatening to win Florida next.
How fitting that Gingrich once bore the title of speaker. With free media and a little cash from his friend Sheldon Adelson, Gingrich has literally talked his way to the front of the Republican race. He puts debate moderators in their place. He tells his opponents to cut the “pious baloney.” He promises to out-argue Barack Obama in a series of “Lincoln-Douglas-style” debates, becoming the first articulate GOP nominee since Ronald Reagan.
Fittingly, Gingrich tried to channel Reagan when he acknowledged the role debates have played in his dramatic campaign turnaround. “People completely misunderstand what is going on,” Gingrich said in his relatively subdued South Carolina victory speech. “It is not that I am a good debater, it’s just that I articulate the deeply held values of the American people.” Reagan said he was less a Great Communicator than a communicator of great things.
Rhetorically, Gingrich actually owes little to Reagan’s style (though he does borrow famous quotes from the 40th president, such as “We win, they lose”). Gingrich is a cross between Tony Robbins and Spiro Agnew. Like any motivational speaker, Gingrich has his list of the five things you must understand or the three ideas that will “fundamentally transform” Washington. Candidly and frankly, nothing can be merely be changed. It must be changed profoundly and fundamentally.
Like any self-improvement guru, Gingrich promises to empower his listeners to take their lives back. If only Newt is allowed to lighten the load of bureaucracy or deliver government services at the speed of a fiber optic cable or give inner-city youths jobs as janitors or outsource immigration and naturalization to American Express. In just three easy steps, paid for in five monthly installments, you can reclaim your party, your government, and your country.
In the self-help world, the enemy is usually complacency or self-doubt. The enemies standing in the way of grandiose thoughts and grandiose dreams are less abstract. That’s where the comparison to Tony Robbins ends and Spiro Agnew begins. Gingrich is running against Saul Alinsky radicals, media and political elites, Washington and New York City, “anti-religious bigots,” and people who want to turn America into some third-rate rip-off of a financially, morally bankrupt European welfare state.
To some people, this kind of talk sounds over the top. Many liberals detect sinister dogwhistling when Gingrich calls Obama (who is black) the “food stamp president” or takes Juan Williams (who is black!) to task on a racially charged issue at a Southern debate.
But Gingrich isn’t George Wallace, as much as he may share the latter’s disdain for “pointy-headed bureaucrats.” Gingrich was a Nelson Rockefeller backer in 1968 because he supported the civil rights movement. He has generally been squarely within the Jack Kemp “rising tides lifts all the boats” tradition of the Republican Party (unless the tide rose because of Bain Capital). He believes all Americans, black or white, prefer paychecks to foodstamps. His ideological color-blindness blinds him to the possibility that anything he says could be racially offensive, even when expounding on the “Kenyan anti-colonial” mindest that allegedly pervades the president’s garden-variety liberalism.
Millions of Americans see Hollywood, Washington, and New York forming not an axis of evil, but certainly an alliance of elites — to use Gingrich’s word — who have contempt for people like them. That’s why they rallied to Sarah Palin when liberals made fun of her. But unlike Palin, when Gingrich fights back against those who sneer at him he is glib enough to beat them at their own game.
Last night’s debate to some extent probed the weak underbelly of Gingrich’s campaign. Between the triumph of the 1994 election and his embarrassing exit from the speakership four years later, Gingrich often talked a better game than he played. His big ideas may not withstand scrutiny. Do you want a local board in Berkeley, California deciding which illegal aliens can remain in America? Where in the Constitution does the president or Congress have the authority to hire school janitors?
But for now, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Newt Gingrich has something to say that resonates with the Silent Majority. He is speaking for them and the Republican establishment is going to have a hard time shutting him up.