Nine Nineties in Nine

You’ll never guess who asked for my autograph last week? The answer in a bit, but first I want to report on the event that I hope will help change the political discourse in America for the 2008 campaign.

Lincoln’s Inspiration at Cooper Union

Regular readers of Winning the Future will know that last Wednesday evening, New York’s former Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo and I appeared together at historic Cooper Union in New York City, the site where Abraham Lincoln delivered the speech that arguably made him President. Cooper Union is situated on the edge of Manhattan’s East Village. Those familiar with New York City know that being a conservative in the East Village is about as lonely as one can be. Hundreds waited in line outside the Great Hall for hours to get in. By 6:30 p.m, the 900 seats were full.

We came to Cooper Union for one reason — to demonstrate that it was possible for leaders from opposing political parties to have a thoughtful and civilized conversation about the future of America. We wrote about it in the New York Sun. You can read it here. And that it could be done without the long list of rules political consultants insist upon. In fact, there were no rules. We each spoke for 30 minutes. Then, Tim Russert from NBC News posed challenging questions to each of us which produced a substantive issue-driven exchange.

Speaking as a conservative, I am happy to report that it is possible to go into the heart of a liberal stronghold with conservative solutions and be well received. But, there are also tremendous benefits in doing so. Here’s why.

We have all become used to candidates appearing at events where the audience is made up of ideologically sympathetic supporters. Most candidates for president know all too well how to get cheers of approval from their bases with well delivered poll-tested partisan talking points. However, it would be a different situation entirely if candidates had to consistently appear in front of people who are not inclined to be in agreement with them. Add to that, someone from the other party who will challenge their positions, then add to that someone from the media who knows how to cut through the rhetoric. Now, that is a much more substantial challenge and one likely to produce a much better quality of meaningful dialogue about how to meet the many challenges facing the country.

Such a level of meaningful exchange is critical to our democratic process. First and most importantly, it requires candidates to know what they stand for. A candidate must know more than talking points; he or she must know the substance of the material. They must be able to draw on historical parallels to support their arguments. They must know the audience and understand something about their worldview in order to relate to them. Candidates must be clear. They must provide real solutions to our challenges. But even all of that is not nearly enough. They must persuade.

Persuasion is what counts in a free society. If you cannot persuade, you cannot succeed in solving America’s challenges because in the end, the American people must support your solutions or nothing can get done. It’s time for a new model.

Governor Cuomo and I set out to demonstrate that two political leaders with dramatically different political perspectives can have a constructive, intelligent, free-wheeling dialogue about America without degenerating into petty partisan political point scoring where no one is persuaded.

We wanted to contrast our lively exchange with the rule-driven, consultant-strangled “debates” we’ve seen in the past few campaign cycles, in which campaign consultants maximize candidate choreography while minimizing the possibility of an informative, challenging debate.

Governor Cuomo and I believe that the Cooper Union model is good for America. I believe it will produce a much richer dialogue, more informed and better candidates, will encourage solutions and substance, and perhaps most significantly, will reengage millions of Americans to become active participants in America’s future but who are today turned off by the trivial shallowness of the current political process.

The “Nine Nineties in Nine” Pledge

If you believe, as I do, that there is an opportunity for a better political dialogue now and in 2008, then I need your help. I issued a challenge at Cooper Union to those who are running for president asking them to take a pledge which can be summarized as follows.

“If I receive my party’s nomination for President of the United States, I pledge to participate in nine, ninety-minute dialogues in the nine weeks before the general election with my opponent. In the Lincoln-Douglas style, I will agree to debate my opponent with only a time-keeper, and to insist upon no rules. I understand it will be just me and my solutions and my opponent with theirs.”

Tim Russert from Meet the Press stated in the Great Hall at Cooper Union that he would ask every presidential candidate if they would agree to nine ninety-minute debates in nine weeks. I am asking you to do the same. When a candidate asks for your support, ask them if they will take the Nine Nineties in Nine Pledge.

Americans deserve the chance to see the candidates in an unfiltered dialogue. They deserve to be persuaded with solutions that stem from core beliefs. Most of all, they deserve a presidential election process worthy of choosing the man or woman who will occupy the Oval Office and assume the mantle of leader of the free world.

One Candidate Takes the Nine Nineties in Nine Challenge — Who Will be Next?

So who asked for my autograph? Let’s see if you guessed right. Before the Cooper Union event I was walking in mid-town Manhattan near 44th and 6th Ave. on my way to pre-tape an interview with Dr. Jim Dobson for Focus on the Family. Someone from behind tapped me on my shoulder and asked me for my autograph. Reaching for my pen, I turned around and who was standing there with his famous Big Apple smile but the former Mayor himself, Rudy Giuliani. In the middle of the sidewalk we spoke for 10 minutes and them something wonderful happened. After I told him about the pledge challenge we were about to issue at Cooper Union that night, without missing a beat, he readily agreed to the challenge.

So who will be the next to take the Nine Nineties in Nine Pledge? You can help every candidate to accept by writing their offices, calling talk radio or asking them personally. If enough voters insist upon substance and civility in the next eighteen months, then candidates will have no choice but to tell their consultants “No” and tell Americans “YES”, there is a better way.

I believe we succeeded in providing one model to improve the 2008 campaign. I think those in attendance on Wednesday night would agree. But I’ll leave it up to you to decide. You can watch the entire event on the web at Let me know what you think.

Your friend,

Newt Gingrich

P.S. — I spoke to a record crowd at the 34th annual CPAC conference on Saturday. In the speech, I hit a number of points including asking the candidates to take the Pledge.