When I was first elected to Congress in 1998, one of the first calls I got was from Speaker Gingrich. The call began pleasantly enough, but it did not end that way.
Speaker Gingrich asked me if he could count on my vote to re-elect him speaker. I told him no, he could not. He asked angrily, “Why not?” I told him I could not commit to him because Republicans had lost seats in the House under his leadership and I believed he had let the Conservative revolution fizzle out.
Gingrich must have had many similar conversations with his Republican colleagues, because after he finished counting votes, he dropped out of the race and resigned from Congress. He became the first speaker of the House ever to be ousted from the office by his own party.
When you look closely, one of the most amazing things about the Gingrich campaign for the White House is how few of his former Republican colleagues support him. Former congressman and television news commentator Joe Scarborough has written perhaps the most scathing denunciation of the former speaker. It includes this appraisal: “Newt’s precipitous fall from power [in 1998] was the result of arrogance, self-satisfaction, and a fatal tendency to flit from issue to issue – and from core conviction to core conviction.”
That is indeed the problem with Newt. He can be eloquent, fast on his feet and a ferocious debater. He knows a lot about history and has been in politics long enough to understand a lot of policy issues backwards and forwards. But he has a fatal flaw: he lacks a genuine set of core political convictions.
For Gingrich, political calculations are not a matter of policy pragmatism; it is a more self-centered calculation – “Do I need to change my position to advance my ambitions?”
There is a name for that kind of ambition: It’s called opportunism. Perhaps that’s the origin of his fascination with the recurring theme of creating “an opportunity society.” Maybe it means endless opportunities for Gingrich to reinvent himself.
We all know this kind of politician well; we have seen thousands of them from city hall to statehouse to Capitol Hill. The only thing new in this picture is this kind of politician calling himself a Reagan conservative. That’s more than opportunism – it’s a brazen lie.
Ronald Reagan moved from Democrat to Republican early in his life, and he did change his position on a few issues after entering politics. But here’s the difference between him and opportunists like Gingrich: Reagan’s policy movements were all in the same direction, whereas Gingrich has jumped all over the map.
Gingrich’s supporters have an impossible task when trying to predict where he will be on any given issue a year from now. In that respect, his campaign much resembles Obama’s campaign of 2007-2008. It was long on “hope and change” and short on details. Obama was the attractive “not-Bush” candidate, with a fill-in-the-blanks policy agenda. That’s Gingrich’s platform in 2012: God only knows what a Gingrich presidency would look like, but it surely would not be the second coming of Ronald Reagan.
Thus, the basic problem with Gingrich is not his policies today; it’s that no one knows what his policies will be tomorrow. He wants to give amnesty to illegal aliens who have been here 25 years or longer and have children and grandchildren born here. And what is the basis for this policy change? He believes we must do so out of “humanitarian concerns.” Can anyone predict where such “humanitarian concerns” will take us next?
When I was appointed by President Reagan in 1981 to the position of Region VIII director for the U.S. Department of Education, I was told by the White House that all of Reagan’s appointees had to meet three criteria, three tests that many people called the “three C’s”: Competence, Character and Conviction. That meant competence to do the job, the character to stay above corruption and “going native,” and political convictions consistent with Reagan’s principles. I am not the only Reagan alumnus who believes Newt Gingrich could never have passed those three tests – not then, and certainly not now.
Is Gingrich a strong leader capable of challenging the status quo and leading the nation out of its addiction to unsustainable public debt? His former House Republican colleagues do not think so. When the going got tough, he backtracked on the “Contract with America” that he helped write. Are the challenges any less daunting today?