Monday, March 2, 2009

The Gospel According To St. Newt

Lost in the roaring rhubarb between conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh and Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele was Newt Gingrich's speech last Friday before the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Gingrich was only a few of the score of prominent speakers who offered specific proposals to help Republicans regain control of Congress and the White House -- other than the GOP mantra of lowering taxes and reducing spending.

He cited his political action committee's 12 solutions as the path to economic recovery. He mentioned two in his speech: (1) Eliminate capital gains tax as they have in China; (2) Lower corporate tax rates to 12.5% as they have in Ireland. Nothing novel there.

Think what you may of Gingrich, but the guy is a saddlebag of ideas, something currently lacking in most Republican think tanks at this juncture in history. I checked out his 10 solutions on his website. Here's what I found followed by my comments:

(1) Payroll Tax Stimulus. With a temporary new tax credit to offset 50% of the payroll tax, every small business would have more money, and all Americans would take home more of what they earn.

Cutting the payroll tax in half would have crippling long-term shortfall of Social Security and accelerate its current path to bankruptcy.

(2) Real Middle-Income Tax Relief. Reduce the marginal tax rate of 25% down to 15%, in effect establishing a flat-rate tax of 15% for close to 9 out of 10 American workers.

It is unclear whether the flat tax would eliminate deductions and other adjustments on earnings.

(3) Reduce the Business Tax Rate. Match Ireland’s rate of 12.5% to keep more jobs in America.

Despite Ireland's low rate, the country is staggering in the global economic meltdown as much or more than nations with much higher rates such as Britain, France and Germany.

(4) Homeowner’s Assistance. Provide tax credit incentives to responsible home buyers so they can keep their homes.

This proposal fails to offset the higher interest rates many banks have slapped on homeowners who acquired loans through their home equity but still manage to make their mortgage payments.

(5) Control Spending So We Can Move to a Balanced Budget. This begins with eliminating Congressional earmarks and wasteful pork-barrel spending.

Pork represents only a small fraction of Congressional appropriations, according to the Congressional Budget Office. It is an inartful practice but the only practical way a Congressmen can deliver federal funds for projects to his constituents.

(6) No State Aid Without Protection From Fraud. Require state governments to adopt anti-fraud and anti-theft policies before giving them more money.

This is a rather bewildering "solution" since the allocation of federal money is already spelled out in rules the feds are supposed to enforce.

(7) More American Energy Now. Explore for more American oil and gas and invest in affordable energy for the future, including clean coal, ethanol, nuclear power and renewable fuels.

The "Drill here. Drill now" slogan Gingrich clamored for last year revitalized Congressional Republicans. However, the first national energy policy in 30 years is being formulated now by the Obama administration. The results, in principle, will be designed to increase U.S. independence from foreign oil.

(8) Abolish Taxes on Capital Gains. Match China, Singapore and many other competitors. More investment in America means more jobs in America.

(9) Protect the Rights of American Workers. We must protect a worker’s right to decide by secret ballot whether to join a union, and the worker’s right to freely negotiate. Forced unionism will kill jobs in America at a time when we can’t afford to lose them.

This proposal has merits only if it closes the disparity of earnings ratio between employees and employers which was 30% 20 years ago but widened to 300% in recent years.

(10) Replace Sarbanes-Oxley. This failed law is crippling entrepreneurial startups. Replace it with affordable rules that help create jobs, not destroy them.

(11) Abolish the Death Tax. Americans should work for their families, not for Washington.

Killing the estate tax is long overdue.

(12) Invest in Energy and Transportation Infrastructure. This includes a new, expanded electric power grid and a 21st century air traffic control system that will reduce delays in air travel and save passengers, employees and airlines billions of dollars per year.

A terrific proposal. It must be said VIPs of all stripes and most members of the flying public, fume over delays at air terminals but reluctantly accept it as an inconvenient truth. Except Newt.

That's it. Twelve solutions of which seven propose tax cuts or tax incentives. This from the most prolific conservative thinker in the Republican ranks.

The Republicans suffer from a power vacuum of great proportions and are desperately in search for someone to lead them out of the party of exile.

Is Gingrich, the former unceremoniously defrocked House Speaker, poised to make a comeback?

That question is asked and artfully dodged by the wily Gingrich in an article in the latest edition of New Yorker Magazine written by an admittedly biased liberal. However, the article is a valuable resource about Gingrich who is described as a lovable and brilliant flake.

The following is a synopsis and snippets from the article.

While the last 12 months or so have been almost unimaginably dismal for the Republican Party, it has been a pretty great year for Newt. Last spring, as gas prices soared, Gingrich expertly employed the combination of an Internet appeal and some cheerleading from Sean Hannity to popularize his new slogan for increased domestic oil production — “Drill here, drill now, pay less” — and delivered to Congress a petition with more than a million signatures in support of more drilling.

That campaign stiffened the resolve of Congressional Republicans, who had proved maddeningly inept at harnessing the tools of modern communication in the way their former leader had; they dug in on the issue and ultimately forced Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats into a rare surrender. (Even John McCain felt the need to change his position on drilling, leading Republicans to turn their entire convention — “Drill, baby, drill!” — into a pep rally for ExxonMobil.) In September, an emboldened Gingrich goaded influential House Republicans into revolting against Bush’s bailout plan for the banks...

Now, as Republicans on the Hill begin to awaken from a November beating that left them semiconscious, Gingrich finds himself, once again, at the zenith of influence in conservative Washington. It is a fortuitous collision of man and moment.

Having ceded the agenda to a Republican president for the past eight years (and having mostly obsessed over White House scandals for much of the decade before that), Republicans now find that they have strikingly little to say that isn’t entirely reactive — or reactionary.

“It was like ‘The Matrix,’ when Keanu Reeves wakes up and his eyes hurt because he hasn’t used them,” David Winston, a pollster for House Republicans, (said) recently, talking about the 2006 election that relegated Republicans to the minority for the first time since 1994. “We just didn’t know how to do ideas anymore.”

Whatever else you think of Gingrich, he has always been considered a prospector in bold and counter intuitive thinking — floating ideas, throughout his career, that have ranged from giving every poor child a laptop to abolishing the entire concept of adolescence.

As it happens, Gingrich is also the only guy alive who can actually claim to have led a beleaguered Republican House minority back to power. During the years when Tom DeLay and Karl Rove ruled Washington, conservatives wondered what they had to learn from a has-been who had been forced from power; now they wonder if he might have just a little more magic left under that schoolboy shock of white hair.

“If you said to me that I could only consult with one individual, and my job was to bring the party back, Newt Gingrich would be the guy,” says Frank Luntz, the pollster who has worked with Gingrich going back to the 1994 Contract With America, the 10-point agenda that Republicans waved around on their way to the majority. “This guy would be the perfect ‘Behind the Music’ story, because he was on top, and then he lost it all, and now he’s back and bigger than ever. It’s perfect.”

It’s also a little strange. Barack Obama ran for president, you’ll recall, on the idea that the politics of the ’90s — if not the policies that brought about unbridled prosperity — could finally be put behind us. But the ’90s, it turns out, are not so easily dispatched. Much of Obama’s own administration has been culled, perhaps necessarily, from the ranks of those who fought alongside Clinton during those dark years when they and Gingrich’s army fought wars of attrition over the budget and impeachment: Rahm Emanuel, Leon Panetta, Hillary Clinton herself.

And now here comes their old adversary, back from the political dead, just to make the whole thing seem like some retro reality show — “Battle of the Aging Boomers.” Last time around, of course, Democrats got the best of their encounter with Newt.

Republicans have to hope that Gingrich, an avid military historian, has learned a thing or two about how to regroup.

On the night of Obama's inauguration, Frank Luntz organized a dinner at the Caucus Room, one of those classic Washington expense-account places, with about 15 Republican congressmen and senators, including some in the leadership. Their ears still rang with the jeers of Obama supporters on the Mall, whose taunts, aimed at George W. Bush as he sat placidly through the proceedings, had ricocheted loudly off the walls of the Capitol — it was a final indignity on a day that felt something like a funeral.

Dinner was well under way by the time Gingrich arrived, but he proceeded to hold forth for hours, rallying the Republican troops who sat rapt in their chairs. Gingrich was fascinated and impressed by Obama’s address (“Those could have been our words,” he told the group), and he advised them to laminate it and keep it close by, so that they could hold the new president to his pragmatic rhetoric.

He urged them to go after the nomination of the incoming Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, who had been one of the architects of the bailout plan Gingrich found so odious and who was now in trouble over unpaid taxes.

The next day, at Geithner’s confirmation hearing, Senator Jon Kly of Arizona, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate and one of the dinner guests that night, ripped into Geithner, calling it “incomprehensible” that the nominee for Treasury hadn’t known whether he had fully paid his income taxes while he was at the International Monetary Fund. At a Republican retreat two weeks later in Virginia, Peter Roskam, an Illinois congressman who also attended the dinner, showed up with laminated copies of excerpts from Obama’s inaugural address and handed them out to his colleagues.

The breach here is plenty wide, and Gingrich is nothing if not politically agile. He has maintained, from his days in Congress, close relationships with colleagues who still serve in the House or who, like Kyl, have now moved on to the Senate. He has forged new alliances with leaders of the next generation as well — most notably Eric Cantor, the Virginia congressman who is minority whip, just below Boehner in the hierarchy.

Then there is the group of senior aides that includes Paula Nowakowski, Boehner’s chief of staff, who (said) she is barraged almost daily with what she calls Newtgrams — e-mail messages from Gingrich with lists of policy ideas, questions or advice on how to handle the caucus.

Another frequent recipient is Paul Ryan, a young Wisconsin congressman and Gingrich protégé known for burrowing into budget issues. Ryan (said) he was opening presents with his children on Christmas when his BlackBerry buzzed with a question about the tax code. “He’s a total idea factory,” Ryan said. “The man will have 10 ideas in an hour. Six of them will be brilliant, two of them are in the stratosphere and two of them I’ll just flat-out disagree with. And then you’ll get 10 more ideas in the next hour.”

A lot of these e-mail messages are deeply wonkish, written in single-sentence paragraphs without punctuation or capital letters. It’s almost as if you can see Gingrich twittering away at a Starbucks while doing calculations on a wrinkled napkin.

On Thanksgiving Day, for instance, in an e-mail message one recipient shared, Gingrich fired off a riff on an idea by Louie Gohmert, a Republican congressman from Texas, who had suggested that, instead of a stimulus bill, the party propose a payroll-tax holiday. “FICA and personal income tax combined are about $160 billion a month (you might want to check my math),” Gingrich wrote to a group of Congressional allies.

“So if Pelosi proposes a $700 billion stimulus spending package in January, we could propose a 4-month tax holiday as the alternative.” In a separate e-mail message to his own aides, he wrote: “Think of no personal or corporate income tax and no fica tax for a year as a stimulus package. Am I nuts in (R)ome or is the contrast startling.”

The tax-holiday idea never really went anywhere. Republican leaders in Congress were fixated on a more tactical question: whether the party risked more by opposing Obama outright or by exploring some kind of compromise with him. What they sought from Gingrich wasn’t the policy ideas of an unorthodox thinker so much as the strategic insight of the last Republican heavyweight to have mixed it up with a deft Democratic president.

A few days after the inauguration, (the reporter) met Eric Cantor at a bench outside the House chamber, and (they) walked — jogged, actually — across the street to the Rayburn Building, where the Ways and Means Committee was marking up the Democratic stimulus bill.

Cantor is just two years younger than Obama, and you can see how he might emerge in the years ahead as the president’s generational opposite, in the same way that Gingrich and Bill Clinton often seemed to bring out in each other their long-dormant high school personas. Where Obama sweeps through a room, effortless and aloof, the wiry Cantor emits a kind of nerdy intensity, like an actuary who really loves his work. Cantor says “frankly” a lot, usually just before he says something that’s highly calibrated.

(Cantor was asked) whether Gingrich was giving him useful advice for how to navigate the current moment. “Every day, every day,” he told me. “You want specifics?”

“Well, generally, he is very quick to see the historic election of President Obama and the potential for his support to last, and what that means for Congress, and how we compare the success of Barack Obama to, frankly, the difficulties that Speaker Pelosi and Leader Reid are having with the American public right now,” Cantor said. “You know, Congressional Democrats are nowhere near where this president is right now in terms of public opinion.”

Cantor listed some of the more extreme liberal forces — he mentioned Code Pink, the women’s antiwar group, and the “radical environmental movement,” which were about the most provocative examples he could come up with off the top of his head — that seemed, in his view, to hold sway among Democrats in Congress but whom Obama, with his centrist outlook, might need to defy.

“If you watch where he’s going, since he’s been elected he’s sort of rejected some of the campaign rhetoric and said we have to deliberate, we have to be thoughtful,” Cantor went on. “He understands the burdens of the office and at the same time understands that this is a center-right country. We’re closer to that, frankly, than the majority in the House.”

How do you contrast yourself favorably with a wildly popular new president at a time of great urgency when you yourself are about as popular as acne? (In a poll conducted by the firm Research 2000 last month, Boehner’s approval rating hit a new low of 18 percent.)

But Cantor was suggesting that Republicans might not need to contrast themselves with Obama at all — that, in fact, by appearing to share Obama’s basically moderate impulse toward policy, they could instead contrast themselves with Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, with an eye toward picking up some seats in 2010.

In the following weeks, Congressional Democrats began to discern the outlines of this strategy as well, complaining that Republicans were trying to drive a wedge between them and Obama by appearing to embrace the president while criticizing the ideological rigidity of his party.

As Gingrich explained it back in November, just after the election, what he had been preaching to Cantor and other House Republicans was actually more radical than that. Gingrich, who likes to reduce the world to binary options, saw two basic paths for Obama: either he was going to cater to interest groups and his Congressional wing, or he was going to take a more centrist, more reformist approach to governing.

If he chose Door No. 1, then Republicans had to propose a thoughtful, alternate agenda of their own. “Screaming ‘No!’ is just not a strategy,” Gingrich said.

(H)e said he was betting that Obama would take the second approach — that he meant what he said about leaving the old doctrines behind and intended to govern in a way that might fundamentally realign American politics. And if that were the case, Gingrich reasoned, not only would it be politically unpalatable to stand in Obama’s way, but chances were he would soon face serious fractures within his own party and would need to create a broader coalition of partners to get his initiatives through the Congress.

In other words, Gingrich wasn’t suggesting to Cantor and the others that they should simply pretend to like Obama well enough. He was telling them that if Obama was going to move far enough in their direction, their best play — and maybe their only play — was actually to team up with him on legislation if they could.

“I already told the House and Senate Republicans, if Obama decides to govern from the center, you have to work with him,” Gingrich said. “He’s the president of the United States. If the president of the United States walks in with a rational, moderate proposal which has his left wing up in arms and you don’t help him, you look like you’re a nihilistic party of reactionary opposition.” He pointed to the model of Lyndon Johnson and Sam Rayburn, the Democratic tandem in the Senate and House who worked amiably with Dwight Eisenhower and, in so doing, split the Republican Party for years to come.

“I don’t actually build oppositions,” Gingrich (said), as if this business of salvaging a lost party were something he undertook every couple of months. “I build the next governing majority. I have no interest in being an opposition party.”

As a first test of this theory of engagement, however, negotiations over Obama’s stimulus plan cast doubt on how sincere Republicans were about emulating a Johnson-Rayburn model. At first, Republicans in the House and Senate went out of their way to praise the president, who staked out a negotiating position by including $250 billion worth of tax cuts in his initial proposal.

Obama came to the Hill for a 90-minute meeting and seemed apologetic, according to Republicans who participated, for the way the House minority had been shut out of the rule-making process. Cantor led an economic working group in coming up with alternative ideas for the bill — basically the kind of deep tax cuts the Democrats had already rejected — and he and Boehner then delivered them to the president.

“I’ve been with him four times now, and he continues to at least listen,” Cantor (said) during a phone conversation before the vote. Meanwhile, in a speech at the National Press Club, McConnell sounded similarly conciliatory, vowing to “choose bipartisan solutions over partisan failures every time.”

House Democrats, however, still recalling the way Republicans treated them during their years in the minority, designed their bill as if all the Republicans had just been carted away to Guantánamo Bay. Whatever actual resolve Republicans may have had to work across party lines seemed to dissolve overnight, and they reverted to the more familiar stance of reflexive opposition.

Despite some grumbling among Democrats on the Hill, Obama’s majority didn’t fracture, as Gingrich and his minions might have hoped. In the end, House Republican leaders demanded that their members vote unanimously against the bill, and in the Senate, even after the package was trimmed in a concession to centrists from both parties, only the remaining dinosaurs from the party’s Northeastern establishment crossed the aisle.

Obama himself, sounding markedly less bipartisan, skewered the diminished G.O.P. as a party that did, in fact, reflexively scream no, and Republicans did little to counter the impression; in an ill-advised remark to the National Journal’s Hotline, Pete Sessions, the Texas congressman and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, suggested that insurgent Republicans had a lot to learn from the Taliban.

And yet, in fruitlessly trying to obstruct Obama’s gargantuan stimulus bill, Republicans had come away with an issue by which to define themselves. It turned out that they actually could stand up to Obama, soaring approval ratings and all, and live to see another vote, and that provided a psychological boost to a minority party that had seemed cowed and confused.

Just as important, judging from the polls and media coverage, they had at least managed to introduce a reasonable doubt about the stimulus plan into the jury box of public opinion, a note of skepticism that might linger in the months ahead.

Republicans had taken the calculated risk, of course, that if the economy improved, Democrats would throw the vote back at them in the 2010 elections. But at least now, having presented a philosophical alternative, they could run against the bill in 2010 if it turned out only to swell the deficit without creating the jobs that Obama had forecast.

The night after lodging their protest against the bill on the House floor, Republican congressmen arrived at a retreat in Virginia feeling jubilant for the first time since before the presidential campaign.

Waiting for them there was the evening’s keynote speaker — Gingrich, of course. Having seen his engage-and-divide strategy founder almost immediately when it came to the stimulus, Gingrich seemed to have changed his mind about Obama and resorted to his more instinctual, more confrontational cast.

No longer did he talk of Obama as the kind of centrist guy you could get your arms around. In the coming days, in fact, he would deride the president’s “left-wing policies” while at the same time accuse him of “Nixonian” abuses of power.

On this night, Gingrich congratulated his troops on standing united and inspired them with stories about Charles de Gaulle’s heroism and George Washington at Valley Forge, as well as the football legends Joe Paterno and Vince Lombardi. Now was the time for Republicans to rediscover their principles, Gingrich told the congressmen.

At one point, he likened himself, lightheartedly, to Moses. He’d help them cross the Red Sea once again, Gingrich vowed, but only if they promised, this time, to stay on the other side.

We skip now to the part of the article that portrays Newt's modus operandi.

Republicans had been in the minority for 24 years when suburban Atlanta sent the 35-year-old Gingrich to the House of Representatives in 1978, and they had just about accepted that their status there wouldn’t change in any of their lifetimes.

From the day he arrived and began ascending the levels of leadership, Gingrich was the one guy who woke up every morning determined to reverse the flow of history. “He was himself the counterculture,” Frank Luntz says. “If people had run their own local campaigns up to then, he nationalized them. If people ran simplistically, he made it more complicated. If people ran by telling you why their opponents stunk, he ran by telling you why his side was better. He did the opposite of everything that had been done up to then, because everything up to then had been a disaster.”

Even now, all these years later, when you ask Republicans from that era what went wrong — how it was that Gingrich resigned from Congress just four years after finally becoming speaker, having suffered a major defeat at the polls and having seen his approval rating fall to 11 percent — you get a lot of blank looks and tortured shrugs.

It’s as if the thing exploded so quickly that no one ever had time to reassemble the parts and figure out where the malfunction was. But whether the igniter was impeachment or the budget shutdown, everyone agrees that it was probably as much an issue of temperament as of circumstance.

Gingrich is a historian and a futurist; he’s comfortable looking backward or ahead, but he doesn’t actually do all that well with the present. Possessed of a chaotic mind that moves from one obsession to the next, Gingrich flailed from objective to objective, while his missteps came to dominate the news.

Then, too, there was the question of what to do with power. Gingrich has often been prescient in his thinking about social change. In his first book, “Window of Opportunity,” published in 1984 with a weird “Dune” sort of cover featuring an eagle and a space shuttle, Gingrich wrote of a day when a growing number of Americans would work from their homes rather than commute to offices, using their own personal computers along with “information-set” telephones that would transmit vast amounts of data over the phone lines. This was when most of America was just discovering the Commodore 64. (Gingrich also predicted that factories would soon be making alloy metals in space, although he did say that this could happen only if we pursued the right policies, which, clearly, we did not.)

And yet, in his machinations to bring his party back to power, Gingrich became preoccupied with process. The Contract With America was mostly a call to reform the institution of Congress; moving beyond it, turning the corner from rebellion to governance, required workable ideas beyond slashing programs and taxes.

When Gingrich looks back now on the days after his resignation, he sounds genuinely relieved. “It took me probably five seconds to switch personal assignments,” he (said) recently...Freed from the constraints of governing, Gingrich turned chiefly to two pursuits: making money, which he did through speeches and television punditry, and exploring ideas, especially in the realm of technology and modernization.

The jewels of his small empire on K Street are his two policy centers: the Center for Health Transformation, which is actually a for-profit association of health care providers, and the newer American Solutions, which churns out research on a broader array of issues.

Gingrich is all about offering, as he puts it, a “better value” for the American customer — constructive solutions Republicans can take on the road during the next midterm election season and beyond.

“Most Republicans are not entrepreneurial,” he lamented. “They’re corporatists. They like the security and the comfort of a well-thought-out, highly boring boardroom meeting in which they do a PowerPoint once. And it worries them to have ideas, because ideas have edges, and they’re not totally formed, and you’ve got to prove them, and they sound strange because they’re new, and if it’s new how do you know it’s any good, because, after all, it’s new and you’ve never heard it before...”

“One of the projects I’m going to launch — we don’t have a name for it yet — is an air-traffic modernization project,” Gingrich told the reporter excitedly. “You can do a space-based air-traffic-control system with half the current number of air-traffic controllers, increase the amount of air traffic in the northeast by 40 percent, allow point-to-point flights without the controllers having to have highways in the sky, and reduce the amount of aviation fuel by 10 percent. So it’s better for the environment, better for the economy. You have far fewer delays in New York, and by the way, you cut the number of unionized air-traffic controllers by 7,000.

“Our thematic is going to be — you’re going to love this — that if you have an air-traffic delay that’s not caused by weather, take the extra time at the airport and call your two senators and your congressman and demand they pass the modernization act,” Gingrich enthused.

“Now, notice what I’m doing,” he said, leaning back and smiling. “I’m offering you a better value.”

It sounded like a cool idea, to be sure, as long as you weren’t one of those poor air-traffic controllers, who, for whatever reason, have been on the wrong side of Republicans since Reagan fired them in 1981.

But it was hard to imagine Republicans outflanking Obama, as we stood on the brink of global panic, by promising a better on-time ratio for Delta. This has long been the chief criticism of Gingrich among those who share his ideological convictions — that there is a randomness to his brilliance, a lack of prioritization or discipline.

Gingrich may be an “idea factory,” as Paul Ryan puts it, but it sometimes seems like a factory working on triple shifts without a floor manager or anyone keeping the books. Even Gingrich’s modestly bulging waistline, which expands and contracts on some kind of lunar schedule to which only fellow Republicans seem especially attuned, is mentioned as evidence that Gingrich can’t focus on any one objective for very long.

The ideas Gingrich promotes seem to rotate every few weeks, depending on the book he has just torn through or the especially illuminating conversation he has just had, or simply on where his earnest fascination with policy has taken him this morning.

One day it’s his energy plan, which includes not just drilling offshore and in the oil-shale-packed mountainous West but also the kind of massive investment in solar and wind power and biofuels that Obama and other Democrats favor.

On another day it might be his favorite education idea, which entails a plan to reward low-income high-school students who graduate early with a college scholarship equal to the value of the money they’re saving the school system.

There’s not really any unified, easily distillable argument in these and other proposals, no ideology that might be charted on a continuum and labeled accordingly.

Rather, the new-model Newt seems to be pursuing a ruthlessly responsive, almost-wikified brand of politics. His goal is to turn the Republicans into what he calls a “party of the American people” by linking disparate solutions whose only real relationship to one another is that they demonstrate, in surveys, what he calls “tripartisan” appeal — the broad support of Republicans, Democrats and independents.

Gingrich (said) he has identified about 100 ideas and positions that command anywhere from 62 percent to 93 percent support among such a cross-section of voters: giving out tax credits for installing alternative heating sources in your home (90 percent); awarding cash prizes to anyone who invents a car that gets 100 miles to the gallon (77 percent); keeping God in the Pledge of Allegiance (88 percent). Gingrich’s vision — much more Clintonian than Reaganite — is to use targeted initiatives to create a kind of mechanized compatibility with the masses.

What must be obvious even to Gingrich is that none of these calculations have much to do with what his acolytes in Congress want from him right now.

Rather, what Republicans on the Hill value about Gingrich is that he has something to say about every issue, a parry for every feint, a sense of certainty and plainspokenness in confronting policy issues that most Republicans have either ignored for a decade or reduced to hopelessly leaden detail.

Gingrich thinks about ideas strategically, as a way of countering his opponents or wooing new constituencies, and this is something Republicans have failed to do almost from the day he left Capitol Hill.

The party’s besieged leaders aren’t looking to Gingrich to be the architect of some grand new philosophical structure. Rather, they’re hoping he can help erect some armaments around the ideological fortress in which they now find themselves trapped, in danger of being completely overrun...

For those Republicans you might call broadeners rants against the new president are a losing proposition. More reform-minded than ideological, they look at the Bush debacle as the predictable failure of insular and extremist politics — a retreat from the “compassionate conservatism” that Bush once promised.

Conservatism, in their view, does not mean catering to a dwindling base of white and older voters, big business and evangelicals, while younger voters, women, urbanites and minorities recoil from the Republican brand.

Much of the energy here is coming from the governors, who as a rule are forced by political reality to take a less divisive approach to governing. Several of them — including two of McCain’s strongest backers last fall, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Charlie Crist of Florida — went as far as to publicly get behind Obama’s stimulus, which they badly needed to plug gaping holes in their budgets.

This intramural disagreement raises basic questions for Republicans about what kind of party they actually want to be in the 21st century. Is the Republican future going to continue to rely on country-club denizens and the rural bloc, or should it aim more for working-class Catholics or recent immigrants?

Can a party trying to expand its coalition afford to make fundamentalist religious values a core tenet of its ideology? Or to assault the very idea of government?

In many ways, as the most-blogged-about politician since the election, Sarah Palin has become a kaleidoscope through which to view these questions. For many Republicans, the Alaska governor and hockey mom is the new and galvanizing face of conservative America; to others, Palin personifies everything that’s wrong with the party, an approach short on intellect and long on cultural resentment.

Gingrich seems to have decided not to choose sides in this debate. On one hand, he holds himself up as the heir to the more progressive, reformist tradition in of his party, an intellectual provocateur in the model of early progressives like Teddy Roosevelt, Robert La Follette and Hiram Johnson.

Twice during conversations, Gingrich referred to the chapter in Theodore White’s “Making of the President, 1960” in which White describes how Roosevelt led the progressives out of the Republican Party, leaving behind a more reactionary, isolationist wing that would dominate the party for most of the next 50 years.

To Gingrich, this is the same tension that exists today, and he describes it as a continuing struggle between ideas and ignorance, between one group that always wants to modernize the party and another that’s nostalgic for the past.

And yet, at the same time, Gingrich pointedly declines to do what Roosevelt and La Follette did, which is to directly confront the Republican orthodoxies of their day. Those reformers demanded their fellow Republicans make a choice between ideas and ignorance.

By contrast, Gingrich doesn’t really challenge any core ideological precept of the Bush era — only the strategy of “base mobilization” that underlay it. Nor do the last several months of economic calamity seem to have ignited in him any of the populist fervor that energized an earlier generation of progressives.

His main remedy for the financial crisis has been to repeal the Sarbanes-Oxley law that Congress passed to step up regulation after the Enron scandal; Gingrich claims such accounting rules as “mark to market” are needlessly crippling banks and small businesses.

In other words, his prescription for the runaway financial industry is to regulate it less — a position that hardly sounds like a departure from Bush, let alone progressive or insurrectionary.

At a moment when the role of religious fundamentalism in the party is a central question for reformers, Gingrich, rather than making any kind of case for a new enlightenment, has in fact gone to great lengths to placate Christian conservatives. The family-values crowd has never completely embraced Newt, probably because he has been married three times, most recently to a former Hill staff member, Callista Bisek.

In 2006, though, Gingrich wrote a book called “Rediscovering God in America” — part of a new canon of work he has done reaffirming the role of religion in public life. The following year, he went on radio with the evangelical minister James Dobson to apologize for having been unfaithful to his second wife. (A Baptist since graduate school, Gingrich said he will soon convert to Catholicism, his wife’s faith.)

Gingrich’s defining strength as a speechifier is his ability to read a crowd. He’s not a gifted orator like Obama nor especially magnetic like Clinton, but admirers marvel at his capacity to gauge what works and integrate it into his standard routine.

In a sense, this is what Gingrich did in the ’90s. He saw early on how the culture of scandal was changing politics, and he managed to take down Jim Wright, the reigning Democratic speaker, over a book deal. He heard the public’s frustration with the culture of Congress, internalized it and converted it into a 10-point contract and the undoing of the political order. Similarly, the tripartisan Newt is a Republican prototype engineered to succeed in the pragmatic age of Obama.

Gingrich said he was focused on building his own movement, his party of the American people. “Now, if in that process I end up helping to shape the ideas and the language and the solutions that for a long period of time define the choices in America, then I’ve succeeded,” he said. “If in that process personal ambition leads to the presidency, that’s fine, but it’s a secondary achievement, I think...”

Now Bush is gone, Tom DeLay is staving off jail time, John McCain is playing out the string in the Senate and the leaders of a doleful party look to their last great thinker for some inspiration. For Gingrich, that might well be enough.

“If you’d gone around to the establishment and asked about me in 1999 or 2000, they would have used the word ‘was,’ ” Gingrich said. “And now I think they’d use the word ‘is.’ And, you know, in a decade, that’s. . . . ” His voice trailed off.

No comments: