WASHINGTON – The “Republican Revolution” of 1994 has become a faint glint in America’s rearview mirror, but in the aftermath of the GOP’s midterm thrashing, chief architect Newt Gingrich contends there’s no better time than now to “re-launch the movement of Goldwater, Reagan and the Contract with America.”
In the run-up to Labor Day, when he’ll decide whether to vie for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, the former House speaker plans a kind of anti-campaign, shunning 30-second sound-bites in favor of a grass-roots, locally focused effort to apply conservative solutions to problems, and, ultimately, “force change” on Washington.
“We ought to spend all of 2007 as Americans talking about solutions,” he told WND before speaking at the recent National Review Conservative Summit in Washington.
Conventional wisdom says any serious candidate for president in 2008 needs to enter the race now, but Gingrich considers that nonsense.
“It is way too early,” he told WND. “This entire process is a full employment act for consultants. It has no meaning to reality. It drains the candidates, it focuses them on fundraising – how can you possibly have a rational campaign in February of 2007 to explain what you will do in 2009?
Gingrich, who has visited Iowa and New Hampshire promoting his book “Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America,” argues Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy one year before the 1980 campaign and John F. Kennedy declared just 11 months before he was elected in 1960.
“This idea that you’ve got to run for an entire year to get permission to run for an entire year, to finally get permission to have the country mad at you just strikes me as nuts,” Gingrich told WND. “And people who want to go run should run. But I think it’s a very banal way to spend a year of your life, and I think it actually weakens your ability to understand the country and weakens your ability to gather the ideas we need to govern.”
Gingrich contends technology has changed the rules. We live in an instant media environment, he said, yet “we’re told it takes a year of hiring expensive consultants, expensive pollsters, expensive fund-raisers to gather an expensive network in order to spend the money to become Howard Dean.”
Dean, who in the previous presidential campaign quickly lost his surprising early lead when the primaries began, raised the most money of any Democrat in 2003, Gingrich pointed out.
“If you think that’s a productive way to spend your life, you’ll have three or four candidates – go work for them,” he said.
Gingrich insisted his plan to wait until September is not based on any hesitation about his viability as a candidate.
“I am not even going to allow myself to think about a decision prior to Labor Day, because I think (the current campaign system) is bad for the country,” he said. “I’m thinking about health care, about energy, about immigration, about the environment, about Iraq. I’m trying to figure out how you solve these things, how you bring the country together, not how I organize my faction.”
A survey issued last week by American Research Group had Gingrich in third place in Iowa, behind former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. John McCain of Arizona. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll of registered Republican voters Jan. 30-31 showed Gingrich with 15 percent, behind McCain with 22 percent and Giuliani with 34 percent. All other hopefuls named in the poll were in low single-digit percentages.
Rules always being rewritten
GOP strategist and fellow Georgian Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition and a long-time friend, says it’s hard to say how Gingrich’s strategy will work.
“Certainly, conventional wisdom would indicate that waiting until next fall makes it a lot harder to sign up key fund raisers and grass-roots leaders and build a following,” Reed told WND. “But, if there is anybody who can wait, it’s probably Newt Gingrich.
Ralph Reed (photo: KTVB.com)
“The rules of American politics are always being rewritten, and it’s important not to be dismissive of people who do things differently,” Reed said.
Gingrich contends the history of the conservative movement offers a clear way forward – to concentrate on all 511,000 elected offices in the country, not just the presidency.
“I think Newt is exactly right; if you want to change the direction of America, you have to do it from the bottom up, not from the top down,” Reed said. “The best way to see a shift is a series of reforms that bubble up from the bottom.”
Reed cited examples of policy successes that began locally, such as welfare reform by Gov. Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin and Gov. John Engler in Michigan; school choice by Gov. Jeb Bush in Florida; and Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith’s effort to have private companies compete to provide city services.
Conservatives need to remember, Reed said, that “if you have elected a president and have not surrounded him with policy makers, local and state officials, it is almost impossible for him, in isolation, to advance your agenda.”
Dubbed “Ronald Reagan’s unlikely heir,” former Ohio secretary of state and 2006 Republican nominee for governor Ken Blackwell plans to help lead Gingrich’s grass-roots drive in his home state, which proved crucial in the last two presidential election cycles.
Blackwell, who worked on similar efforts with Gingrich in the 1990s and with Lewis Lehrman’s Citizens for America in the 1980s, says, “If you look at some of the defining manifestos of the contemporary conservative movement, Reagan’s first inaugural address and the Contract with America immediately come to mind.”
Blackwell told WND he has no affiliation with any presidential candidate, but with an emphasis on themes of limited government, individual freedom and personal responsibility, he plans, in coordination with Gingrich, to build on successes in Ohio. Despite losing his bid for governor amid a backlash against Republican corruption in the state, he points to recent gains, including passage of a marriage amendment, a statutory spending limit, defeat of state-sponsored gambling and a rollback in the state’s sales-tax rate.
“We’ve been able to speak to the heart and minds of Ohioans, who will have a significant say as to who will be the next Republican candidate for president,” Blackwell said.
Gingrich touts his renewed effort as 50 times the size of the political action committee GOPAC that mobilized Republicans in the 1980s and ’90s. The new group, American Solutions for Winning the Future, has filed as a 527, which allows unlimited fund-raising and spending.
His new manifesto, a 10-point “Contract With America for the 21st Century,” includes plans for Social Security privatization, shrinking government and a call to “recenter America on the creator from whom all our liberties come.”
Gingrich announces “Contract with America” in 1994
This month, Gingrich plans a bipartisan event with Democratic leader Mario Cuomo at the famed Cooper Union in New York – where Abraham Lincoln delivered the speech that set him on a course for the presidency. Gingrich hopes the open forum will be a model for his proposal that candidates from both parties meet on the same platform “to have genuine discussions about what would they do to solve America’s problems.”
“The last thing America needs right now is 30-second attack commercials, vicious e-mails, and plotting consultants being negative in both parties,” he told WND.
Louis Cordia is a Washington-based consultant who directs the Reagan Alumni Association, a non-profit membership of Reagan administration officials who coordinate their efforts to influence public policy, largely in the image of the 40th president.
Cordia considers Gingrich, along with Reagan, one of the “two conservative revolutionaries of the last 100 years.”
He told WND he views Gingrich’s effort as a “great plan to instill conservative ideas in the Republican primary but not necessarily a good modern campaign plan for him to run for president.”
“Regrettably, it’s not just ideas that win elections, you need a lot of money and you need time to raise the money,” said Cordia, who served as a special assistant to the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under Reagan.
The real question, Cordia believes, is whether or not Gingrich is electable.
“If he could be appointed, he would be a great president,” said Cordia. “If it requires an election, I regret to say Democrats and the liberal media have tarnished him badly, and with far less wrongdoing than Bill Clinton.”
When Gingrich resigned the speakership in 1999, he was widely viewed as a polarizing figure after the bruising budget battles and government shutdown of 1995; numerous ethics probes by Democrats; and his leadership in the impeachment of President Clinton. For many on the right, the circumstances of two divorces has tarnished his image, including his marriage to a House aide 23 years his junior shortly after leaving his second wife amid rumors of a six-year affair.
Cordia doesn’t believe the marriage issue would derail Gingrich’s chances if he chooses to run – Giuliani and McCain have their own infidelity issues, he argued.
“His biggest problem is overcoming how the Democrats and the liberal media have tarred him,” Cordia said.
Gingrich’s spokesman, Rick Tyler, said he wouldn’t comment on Gingrich’s personal life, but offered, “If he were to run, it may be that Christian conservatives would find him inadequate. But if they like all that Newt stands for – and I think they do – he would offer to train their candidate in all the issues he thinks are important. I’m sure that Newt would be happy to share all he knows with the conservative candidate, if it were not him.”
Reed said “voters are going to make a decision about who they’ll support based on broad continuum of factors; some will be the personal lives of the candidate, but, in general, I think what people are looking for first in a president is someone who shares their values and stances on the issues that are important and, second, someone who is uniquely qualified to lead.”
“Personal issues are dealt with in rough and tumble of campaign,” Reed said. “If a candidate has a compelling personal story and can address those issues, he can succeed.”
Cordia’s group gathers four times a year, and this year there will be vigorous discussions about which candidate is the best bearer of Reagan’s conservatism.
As a non-profit, the Reagan Alumni Association cannot endorse a candidate, but all members will be active, Cordia said, and “99 percent would all be pushing for the same kind of candidate.”
Gingrich has emulated Reagan with a series of radio commentaries he began last March that echo the Great Communicator’s radio addresses in the mid-1970s.
Nobody questions Gingrich’s facility with language. A former college professor, he passionately promotes conservative values with an eloquence and charisma admired by Republicans. But the question some ask is, can he implement his ideas? Is he among the rare visionaries who also have strong executive abilities?
Gingrich acknowledged in a New York Times interview he was probably better at formulating ideas than at carrying them out — “more of a revolutionary agitator than an elected executive,” as the Times phrased it.
Reed, pointing to Gingrich’s accomplishments as speaker of the House, thinks he would make a good commander in chief
“Newt’s background is as a brilliant strategist, legislator and progenitor of conservative ideas,” Reed allowed. “But I don’t have any reservation about his ability to lead in an executive capacity.”
Tyler said if the Times accurately reflected Gingrich’s remarks, he finds himself in the unusual position, as spokesman, of disagreeing with his boss.
“Personally, I think Newt has God-given leadership ability,” Tyler said. “His talents come from God. He has the ability to lead this country though difficult times.”
If there has been any shortcoming in leadership, Tyler said, he’s heard Gingrich admit to a failure to train people to “form the next generation of solutions and ideas to be implemented through the Congress.”
“He got a lot of legislative achievements that conservatives are happy about, but the wave wasn’t big enough to simply make the left irrelevant,” Tyler said. “They are back in charge in Congress.”