Newt Gingrich isn’t saying yet whether he’ll run for president in 2008. But the former speaker of the House, architect of the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994 and author of the updated “21st Century Contract With America” is acting suspiciously like a candidate.
As a visit to his dense, deep Web site newt.org shows, the conservative idea man is cranking out books, white papers, Webcasts, radio commentaries and offering policy solutions to everything from health care and lousy education in inner-city schools to immigration and Iraq. I talked to Gingrich Thursday by telephone as he was being driven to the airport in Washington:
If you were helping President Bush draft the State of the Union address for this Tuesday, what would you want him to stress?
Newt Gingrich: Well, I’d want him to stress that we face very significant challenges and that it is going to take the American people pulling together to find solutions to these challenges.
These challenges include immigration, energy policy, education …
Gingrich: You’d have to start with Iraq, because you can’t have the conversation until it gets past Iraq. Then you’d have to talk about the general war on terror and the real threat of Iran and North Korea. Then you’d have to talk about immigration and controlling the border. Then you’d have to talk about energy and the need for a national strategy for energy independence that’s also better for the environment. Then you’d have to talk about the changes you’re going to need to be able to compete head-on with China and India and create jobs.
You’d have to talk about how we can have a better health system that has better health outcomes at lower cost. And finally, you’d have to talk about the genuine crisis of failed education and failed policies among the very poor, where we have more young African-American males going to prison than going to college.
Does any one challenge rise above the others?
Gingrich: No. I think this is like fixing a gourmet dinner. Every one of these things matters. If you don’t get a long-term energy strategy, you can’t meet the national security needs or the economic needs or the environmental needs. If you don’t dramatically overhaul learning in the poorest neighborhoods, you are going to have a very significant part of your country that is out of modern life. If you don’t tackle the health system, you can’t ever get a successful balanced budget and you’re going to find it harder and harder to compete in the world market because health is the biggest single cost center in the federal government. It’s 26 percent of all federal spending and going up. How can you talk about national security and not control the border and not get a handle on the 11 million to 13 million people who are here illegally. That’s the real challenge we face. This is the short list. It’s not like there’s a short list inside the short list. This is the short list. And it’s hard and it’s complicated and there’s a lot of it.
You’re known for your ideas and deep thinking on these issues. Is this part of a long-term plan for you to run for president in 2008?
Gingrich: No. It’s part of a plan for us to do our program — which is called “American Solutions” — to actually develop solutions that will work for America. I don’t think we need more ambition nearly as much as we need a set of solutions that people could talk about and organize around.
You’ve been saying that it was a flawed strategy for Republicans to think that the way to a lasting majority was by appealing to its conservative core base. But didn’t you and Ronald Reagan before you consolidate and build conservative power in the first place by doing just that?
Gingrich: Well, what we both did is we both created a center-right majority. Reagan did not carry 49 states by focusing on the base. Reagan carried 49 states by combining the base with most moderate Americans in a very broad majority. We didn’t win control of the House in 1994 by massive turnout of the base. We had 9 million additional voters over the 1990 election — the largest one-party increase in American history. You can build a center-right conservative majority that probably gets close to 60 percent or 65 percent. It’s very hard to sustain a focus only on the right because if you make any mistakes you suddenly find yourself down at 48 percent instead of 51 percent.
A lot of people have criticized Republicans during the Bush administration because they have lost their way — they’ve forgotten the Reagan values of smaller, limited government, etc., and that Republicans have become more like Democrats since they achieved power.
Gingrich: I think it’s more accurate to say they became more incumbents than representative citizens. They thought by doing incumbent things like providing more pork that they’d make Republicans happy. But the average Republican voter is the taxpayer who pays for the pork; they are not the person who’s glad to get the pork because they think they actually paid a surcharge for it. What I’m talking about is not going with some kind of compromise-with-the-left policy. We have programs for reforming welfare, reforming Medicare, balancing the federal budget, cutting taxes, strengthening defense, litigation reform. This is a very robust agenda of real solutions but the solutions appeal to close to 75 percent of the country.
Bob Novak was saying today that an unnamed Republican pollster told him that if U.S. soldiers are still in Iraq and are still dying in 2008 it’s going to be worse for Republicans in 2008 than it was last fall. Do you agree?
Gingrich: If people feel that we are not winning, and that we are just mired down in a mess, then it will be much worse than in 2006. If people feel that we are winning, and that we are gradually defeating the bad guys, and that the Iraqis are gradually taking control of their own country, then I think you can have Americans in uniform still in Iraq. We’ve had people in Germany now for 62 years, people in Japan for 62 years, people in Korea for 57 years. The American people can be very patient if they think that it makes sense and if there is progress. What they will not put up with is a sense of being mired down without progress.
So it’s the not-dying part that is key here?
Gingrich: No. It’s not the not-dying part. If you have to risk young men and women for a cause that is doable, then Americans will reluctantly but with great courage take that risk. If you are having young Americans killed and wounded with no progress and no achievement, then they get fed up very fast.
Is President Bush doing the right thing, the best thing he can do — how do you characterize it?
Gingrich: I think he’s about halfway there. He needs a tremendous amount of change in the government in Washington. People need to understand that the bureaucracy in Washington is fully as incompetent as the bureaucracy in Baghdad and that we do not today have decisions made and implemented with the speed and effectiveness that wartime requires.
How do you get around that? What can you do?
Gingrich: They’ve got to change that. He’s the commander in chief. First of all, he’s got to take command of the war on a daily basis. He has to have a deputy presidential chief of staff who does nothing but coordinate the war. The president has to issue commands rather than simply have an interagency process that’s broken. They have to have accountability for things that don’t work. They ought to get from Adm. (William) Fallon and Gen. (David) Petraeus every morning a list of decisions that are needed, a list of things that aren’t working, and they should fix them during the day. Wartime activity requires a level of intensity and a level of aggressive implementation that is entirely missing from the current government.
You have books out. You are doing radio commentaries just like a guy named Ronald Reagan did back in the 1970s. You’re making lots of speeches. You’re offering solutions to major problems at this National Review “Conservative Summit” that’s coming up. A lot of people would conclude that you are running for president.
Gingrich: Well, like Gov. Reagan, I believe that ideas matter. We think American Solutions is a good way to organize new ideas and new approaches. If you remember, Gov. Reagan spent a long time making speeches without being a candidate because he actually thought the ideas were important. So I think I’m in the Gov. Reagan Phase, not the Candidate Reagan Phase.
Who do you think would make the toughest opponent for Democrats in 2008? Hillary? Obama? Somebody else?
Gingrich: I don’t think we know yet. We’ve got to go through a lot of news media and a lot of attacking each other and a lot of campaigning. But I think Republicans had better assume that the Democrats will be clever enough to nominate their best candidate and that it will be a very tough campaign.