Newt Gingrich is currently a candidate for the Republican nomination to the presidency of the United States, but he has a much chance of gaining the nomination as Ron Paul, a candidate from the fringes of the fringe. Michael Barone of National Review Online has a sage article lamenting the sad state of affairs Mr. Gingrich’s candidacy currently finds itself, and recalls the times when the Gingrich flame shone much more brightly. The augering in of Newt’s campaign is not a process of bad luck, but rather enigmatic of Newt’s whole public life – full of grand ideas, potential, and ultimately self inflicted wounds. Mr. Gingrich may be the only candidate currently soldiering on without a single candidacy staff member, as his entire team mutinied last week and left him for greener pastures. He may be the only person left who believes that the brilliance of his ideas will overwhelm any voter’s hesitancy about the “Newt package” that promotes them. But that’s typical of the pilot who augers in his plane, refusing to jump out of a hopelessly out of control aircraft in the innate belief that at the last second, he will regain control. What appears clear to just about everybody but Newt, the jig is up, and his time as a defining force in American politics has come and gone.
A trip down memory road to a much younger version of Gingrich revealed all the talents of an intellectual dervish. He came into American politics in 1978 and flew in the face of the treasured myth of American media that conservatives were stupid and neanderthalish, and therefore not to be taken seriously in matters of governmental philosophy. Winning a seat prior to the Reagan revolution was no small feat for a conservative, but Gingrich was an unabashed southern conservative Republican when the terms southern, conservative, and democrat were synonymous. He set about immediately to build the disheveled and dysfunctional republican backbenchers into a force, to the the dismay of party leadership who long felt that the demographics of the country were such that they could never again hope to be a majority party in the House of Representatives and therefore should simply work toward the best possible relationship with the eternally dominant Democrats. Gingrich would have none of it, and discovered a heretofore unknown weapon, the first television broadcasts from the House floor broadcast on C-SPAN. Standing alone on the floor at night Gingrich spoke to no one but the camera, initiating a blistering and continuous attack on Democrat leadership and a creative and intellectually diverse lecture on the America’s problems, proposing in-depth solutions. Both Republican and Democratic leadership hoped and assumed no one was watching, but a steadily growing number of people were, and the rest of the backbenchers began to frame their arguments in similar fashion.
To the horror of leadership, Gingrich opened his sights on the House Speaker himself, Jim Wright, regarding Wright’s classic back room shenanigans to use a book deal for a ghost written biography to circumvent campaign finance laws and a secondary assault on the House Post Office and Bank for similar kickbacks to congressmen. To the amazement of the Republicans, Gingrich the general proved brilliant and victorious, taking down the reigning Speaker, and exposing the soft underbelly of a House made moribund over 40 years of consecutive democrat rule. Young conservatives like Judd Gregg, John Kasich, Connie Mack, and Dick Armey began to work with Newt to present an alternative based on ideas and intellectual honesty, and by 1994, the American population was primed to listen to the alternative to a government without limit or direction. Gingrich devised the revolutionary Contract with America, a ten step agreement with the American people to say what they would do, and do what they would say, if elected. In a stunning electoral outcome, Gingrich led a second Republican revolution and took the House of Representatives for the first time in 42 years. The Outlaw had become amazingly Speaker of the House, and for a time Speaker Gingrich, so different than the shallow political hacks before him, amazed the country by passing every one of the planks in the Contract, leading eventually to welfare reform, and serious legislation regarding term limits, electoral reform, congressional ethics, and a balanced budget. For a year or more, Gingrich stood at the zenith of American political royalty, becoming the only speaker in history to have given a nationally televised policy speech, and so outshining the President, that President Clinton had to declare that he was still “relevant” to a Gingrich enraptured press, and declare in a State of the Union address that the “era of Big Government was over”.
Gingrich’s fall came upon his own outsized ego, and assuming his political skills and likeability were a match to those of the crafty Arkansan in the White House. Gingrich’s ultimate prize was to achieve a balanced budget, and he cornered the president into accepting a balanced budget through cuts or experience and unheard of shut down of government. Sounds eerily familiar to the present circumstances. Clinton recognized he could achieve the veneer of both a fiscally responsible executive and make Gingrich appear heartless at the same time, and the shutdown backfired. Clinton got to take credit for the subsequent years of progressively balanced budgets, built on Republican budgetary discipline and a republican inspired Capital Gains Tax cut, and bask in the progressive attack on Gingrich from all comers for his authoritarian style, ethical vulnerabilities, and frankly loose cannon of a mouth. The result of the Gingrich years, electoral reform, welfare reform, freezing of governmental growth, capital gains tax cuts, budgetary surpluses, and tough but fair crime laws. For all that, check mate and match to the president with worse personal ethics, but better likeability and much more acutely honed personal political skills. By 1997, Gingrich was vulnerable, a victim of his own party’s mutiny against him for his authoritarian ways and ethical lapses, led by John Boehner, the current Speaker of the House, and Bill Paxson of New York. By 1998, the weakened Gingrich had lost his Speaker role, and determined not to run again for Congress. The bright light that had changed American political direction so profoundly was left to teach college courses and plot a comeback someday.
The someday was this year, with his decision to run for President, but Gingrich proved his pulse on the voter was no longer precise, and his habit of throwing fireballs at windmills just as out of control as ever. A ridiculous attack on Paul Ryan, the modern day intellectual version of Gingrich in the width and breath of his ideas, was petty and ill considered, and left him back tracking on the very weekend of his announcement. His additional decision to have his current wife act as his chief of staff left the professionals in his campaign aghast, and soon left Newt without a campaign staff. His current ideas seem scattered and disorganized, and worse, dated.
Gingrich is in my mind done as a political figure, but his contribution to the storied period of time when the Congress showed itself to be fiscally responsible in the 1990’s to the great benefit of America, is a shining example of what is possible if you combine intelligence, energy, and vision to the framework allowed by our founding fathers – for a brief time, the best and most creative governmental function in history. Newt, sorry you had to find out how we have moved on, but for what you brought to the table before and the table you helped set, is now just waiting for the right chef to feed a country hungry for real, workable leadership. It just won’t be you, compadre.