Political Hay

There’s Only One Newt

The smartest Republican wows them in New Hampshire.

By 4.17.06

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When Newt Gingrich comes to New Hampshire and makes a statement like, "We as a country are where Abraham Lincoln was in 1861," it's not quite clear where he sees himself in that new/old paradigm. What was apparent at an Anthem Blue Cross forum on "consumer-driven health care" in Bedford last week, however, was that he is exceedingly keen on proving he has a role.

During his keynote address, Gingrich reeled off a list of a few of the challenges he's working on finding "21st century, intelligent, limited government" solutions for, including but not limited to: Dealing with "the irreconcilable wing of Islam"; Buffing up U.S. math and science education so the nation can compete with China and India; Preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons; Avian flu preparedness; Baby Boomer retirement and all its implications; Coping with millions of illegal immigrants "at a time when our borders are out of control"; as well as nurturing scientific and technological progress which he believes will revolutionize American life over the next 25 years.

For an hour Gingrich reeled off on all this and more with humor, warmth, and an encyclopedic brilliance that was at times humbling to mere mortals. Afterwards, a few fans come sheepishly seeking to have their picture taken with the mastermind of the now all-but-defunct 1994 Republican Revolution. Gingrich happily obliges, and as the flashes go off, one man asks the former House speaker if he aspires to ascend to the same office Lincoln once held.

"I don't know yet," Gingrich replied before belying his reticence by encouraging the man to visit his website and sign the mailing list. "If enough people sign up, I'll probably run."

Now, one needn't be a K Street political consultant to divine that Gingrich has a lot of political and cultural baggage. Back in 1999, whilst Gingrich was in the midst of a nasty divorce battle after admitting to years of infidelity with a paid staffer, David Corn of the Nation wrote, "Newt-haters theoretically could have feared a Nixon-like return from the near-dead -- but given how Newt is handling this case, they need not fret any longer." Nevertheless, during the 2004 campaign, Gingrich's name was still being regularly invoked as a catchall term for Republican perfidy.

Perhaps Newt-haters had reason to fear him after all. Less than a decade after resigning his seat, Gingrich has become an increasingly high-profile voice in national policy debates. He remains towering enough a figure to be referred to simply as "Newt," which, as the man who introduced him at the Anthem event gleefully noted, "puts him in the same category as Madonna and Hillary." The latter junior senator from New York has herself praised Gingrich (and he her), going so far as to collaborate with the liberal boogeyman himself on a health care bill. This weekend he was depicted on Saturday Night Live as a voice of reason opposing an oafishly ignorant Bill O'Reilly.

And now people are actually asking if Newt wants to be president of the United States of America. Who said there are no second acts in American life?

FOR HIS PART, GINGRICH SEEMS to be enjoying himself. Running just far enough below the radar to avoid the attack dogs and dredging up of past embarrassments, Gingrich is well received by most crowds. To be sure, the political climate and widespread discontent with government serves his rhetorical strengths.

The former speaker still suffers no fools, especially those with dot-gov email addresses. During the course of his speech he called the Congressional Budget Office "stunningly reactionary and uneducated." He told a room full of health professionals, "When a UPS delivery person walks into a doctor's office they double the computing power of the office." Noting that the same people in the federal government who failed to respond effectively to Hurricane Katrina were now in charge of the avian flu preparations, Gingrich sarcastically suggested a motto: "Your city, too, can look like New Orleans."

Not done yet: The current model of governance in the United States, Gingrich said, is "not functional," likening it to a "clerk sitting on a high stool using a quill pen dipped into an open ink well...modernized by a 1935 New Deal bureaucracy in which a manual typewriter types on carbon paper." And what of the current administration, accused almost daily of trying to roll back the New Deal? "When smart people get to be in charge -- and Dick Cheney, Condi Rice and Donald Rumsfeld are all smart -- they realize it's not working," Gingrich continued. "Surrounded by the system, they offer reforms within the system. They come in and say, 'Plastic quill pens!' Big winner. Or they show up and say 'Brand new carbon tape!'...It's hopeless."

THE LYNCHPIN OF GINGRICH'S new contract with America seems to be a call for detente with irrationality. "You don't want to spend your time trying to organize people," Gingrich said. "It's too complicated." To illustrate, Gingrich painted a portrait of American society as a bee swarm en route to a new hive location.

"If you notice in a swarm, almost half the bees at any given moment are flying the wrong way," Gingrich said. "But the collective effect is they are moving the entire swarm to the new site. So we want to try to get people in a lot of different areas doing a lot of different things all moving in a mutually supportive way."

The current system "denies the way people operate." An established "cultural pattern" may sometimes seem an insurmountable obstacle, "but that doesn't mean we have to manage it as if we're as stupid as the culture that has grown up around it," Gingrich said. He would rather adapt limited government principles to reality, even if only incrementally.

"More choices of higher quality at lower cost -- any strategy that isn't trying to get to that is profoundly wrong," Gingrich told the Anthem crowd. To free-market types such a statement might seem self-evident. During the Q&A segment, however, someone challenged this, asking if there were possibly too many choices in the prescription drug bill, Newt couldn't help but be Newt. "The average senior citizen -- we're not talking frail elderly, we're not talking Alzheimer's -- walks into a Wal-Mart superstore with 258,000 items and doesn't seem intimidated," he said.

Standing in stark relief against the typical pandering and cradle-to-grave welfare state promises of a presidential campaign, it's not clear whether such sentiments would actually garner votes or overcome the drawbacks of Gingrich's past enough to accentuate his former strengths even in an increasingly anti-government political atmosphere.

Whatever the final outcome, we can all probably agree it would be a whole lot of fun to watch go down. Flawed though he may be in some respects, his ability to elucidate the core of any number of issues is all but unparalleled. It is a quality that, in fact, makes those flaws all the more tragic.

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