With the explosive rise of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to the top of the field of Republican presidential primary contenders, there has been a national reassessment of his ideas, principles and presidential prospects.
Gingrich has been described as both a strong conservative by some, and as a man with progressive instincts by others. A man of the past, writing endlessly about history, and at the same time a man of the future who plugs New Age futurists such as Alvin Toffler. His real roots, however, may be in a bygone era of American history.
Gingrich has been described as a man of both great and profound ideas, and profoundly absurd ones. He has been compared with Winston Churchill for his lack of judgment, his vanity, and the political ups-and-downs of his one last chance at greatness, and he’s compared himself with both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
Despite all the relatively unconservative ideas he has supported, the occasional instances of poor judgment, a very small campaign apparatus and essentially being a career politician, Gingrich has surged in the polls, with much of his backing coming from Tea Party Republicans.
The question is how could a man of Gingrich’s background suddenly trigger such support from grassroots voters?
Gingrich has many characteristics that are clearly unusual for a 21st century American politician, or a 20th century one for that matter. He is much more similar to an early 19th century statesman, with an independence of mind, spectacular debate and oratory skills, and a clear understanding of American history. Clearly, his appeal to debate fellow Republicans and President Obama in a “Lincoln-Douglas”-style debate is a throwback to the early American, long form style of oratory.
To hear the barely audible mumbling of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, or listen to the incoherent ramblings of former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, is to understand that it is not exactly a golden age of oratory for Congress.
At one time, however, American statesmen were expected to hold their own in a debate about history and the meaning of the country, they were much more independent of party structure because the modern-day apparatus was only in its infancy, and they clearly outclassed their modern-day peers on breadth and depth of self-taught knowledge.
With the revival of grassroots conservatism, focused primarily on civics, government, and fixing a broken nation, Gingrich may have found his perfect moment. He has combined his clear vision for America with the brilliance of a passionate autodidact.
Many years ago, Gingrich compared himself with one of his personal heroes, Henry Clay, the great congressman and senator from the state of Kentucky.
Clay, known by a variety of nicknames, including Prince Hal, Mill Boy of the Slashes, Star of the West and the Great Compromiser, is usually considered the greatest speaker of the House in American history.
The diversity of Clay’s nicknames shows how he could be many things to many people: a masterful orator, a man who brought himself up by his bootstraps, and a legislative magician. He was ultimately a divisive and controversial hyperpartisan who knew how to play the dirty game of politics almost better than anyone in an era of political titans. He was a vain man who often lacked political judgment, but few doubted his incredible talent or ability to work legislative magic. Clay was the man of ideas in the Whig Party, a tall fellow who held almost absolute sway over its course and platform.
Gingrich has been no less divisive and controversial, which is in many ways why grassroots conservatives will side with him over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. It isn’t as if he hasn’t flip-flopped on a number of issues just like Romney, and he certainly has supported a number of un-conservative causes. It’s more about people’s sense that he will truly fight for a cause he believes in. Now more than ever, the base of the Republican Party is looking for a fighter.
Like Clay, Gingrich has the oratorical skill to win nearly any popular debate, though he can sometimes verge on hyperbole. High-flying rhetoric was common in early 19th century debates, but so was arguing logically and coherently. Clay went toe-to-toe with the greatest orators in what was called The Golden Age of the Senate. A life-long rival, John Randolph of Roanoke, Va., came into the Senate from his death bed to hear Clay speak one last time. At the height of the Nullification Crisis, Randolph remarked, “There is one man, and one man only, who can save the union—and that man is Henry Clay.”
Clay’s glowing rhetoric, delivered in a clear baritone voice, attracted people to both his ideas and his persona. He nearly single-handedly created the Whig Party out of the tottered remains of the Federalist Party and the nationalistic wing of Thomas Jefferson’s and James Madison’s fracturing “republican party.”
Similarly, Gingrich orchestrated the modern Republican recapturing of the House after nearly a half-century of Democratic control, and made it a force capable of countering a Democrat President.
Being a man of ideas has always been Gingrich’s most identifiable characteristic, and so it was with Clay, whose American System was the chief cause of his career, and the core program of the Whig Party while he dominated it. The American System was an attempt to greatly expand national infrastructure, support a national bank, and use protectionist tariffs to support that system.
To maintain some of his most precious initiatives, Clay had to compromise with Democrats to save the union on three historic occasions. The Compromise of 1820 that established the North-South divide of slavery, the compromise to end the Nullification Crisis by lowering tariffs, and finally the Compromise of 1850, which just barely held the union together as it was coming apart at the seams.
Gingrich had his own program, the Contract with America, which in 1994 was intended to boldly change how American government operated. That he succeeded in passing welfare reform and was able to get the budget balanced with a Democrat President, truly makes him worthy of being called one of the greatest House speakers in American history. No other presidential candidate today can boast of that kind of conservative accomplishment.
Both Clay and Gingrich ran into trouble with their own party and semi-retired for a number of years. Clay left politics and went back to his law practice while continuing to consult Whig Party members, and Gingrich began writing about history and acting as a consultant himself.
In his twilight years, Clay made a run for President against a man without a party, John Tyler, and dark-horse Democrat James K. Polk in 1844. When victory looked to be within reach for Clay, however, he gave himself a grievous self-inflicted wound by coming out against the wildly popular annexation of Texas in a long public letter. He also ran on reinstituting a national bank, which by 1844 was a dead issue of an earlier era. For all of his political talent, Clay didn’t know when to let go of a cherished idea or belief, and it ended up sinking him.
Gingrich may find himself in a similar situation. He has already made the horrendous gaffe of calling conservative hero and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan “right-wing social engineering,” which angered conservatives and took him out of step with a party that now sees a critical need for Social Security and Medicare reform. Clay tried to backtrack and qualify his stand against the Texas annexation, but the public mind set had been firmly established against him. Gingrich may also find getting out from under his comments impossible as rivals dredge it back up.
The defense of using some government to help the economy grow might also be a hindrance to Gingrich in a time when Americans both Left and Right see the connection between Big Business and Big Government as one of the main reasons for the country’s economic woes. The dark cloud of consulting Freddie Mac and supporting the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) may eventually doom him with voters. His support of the individual mandate during the fight against HillaryCare in the 1990s may make his attacks against RomneyCare less potent.
In the end, Henry Clay failed to take the presidency. He was out of step with the times, even though they required a man of his caliber. In 1848, Clay was shoved aside by the party he created and betrayed by his friends in Washington, who decided instead to nominate the uncontroversial war hero with virtually no core political convictions, Zachary Taylor. The Whigs won the election, but without a set of principles to coalesce around, or a man who could articulate them, the party vanished within a decade and the country was propelled to civil war.
Only when a Republican Party was formed, and was willing and able to nominate a man of both great ideas and core convictions in another native Kentuckian, Abraham Lincoln, would the ideas and organization of the Democratic Party of that era be challenged.
This is perhaps what conservative voters are looking for. They want a nominee who can stand and fight for his convictions, and take that fight to President Obama and the Democratic Party.
There is a sentiment within the Republican Party that Washington insiders and establishment Republicans want to nominate Romney. Much like Zachary Taylor, Romney has a strong personal resume outside of politics and looks like a generic Republican that can beat a President with a deeply unpopular program, but he is viewed as a man with few deep, core convictions.
Gingrich may suffer the same fate as Clay, despite his recent surge in popularity. The power brokers within the Republican Party, especially in Washington, may throw their weight and organization behind Romney, putting a severe damper on the Gingrich surge. Or Gingrich could blow his own campaign up with another high-profile gaffe.
Clay failed to become President even after serving as one of the most significant and able men of his age. He was known for saying, “I would rather be right than be President.” It’s not hard to imagine Gingrich, a man wedded to his own ideas for reform, being forced to concede the same thing. On the other hand, if he catches lightning in a bottle and avoids the foibles that have doomed him in the past, Gingrich just may lay claim to the title of President that his hero, Clay, never captured.