11 June 2009

The return of the ideas man

He's back!

After his 56-minute skewering of President Obama at the Senate-House Republican dinner earlier this week, it's safe to say that regardless of what he might say to the press, Newt Gingrich -- the last great conservative leader the Republican Party has known -- has thrown his jowled, graying hat into the ring for the 2012 Republican nomination.

Regardless of whether I agree with Gingrich's comments, his reemergence in the Republican leadership vacuum is absolutely fascinating.

I disagree with the so-called conventional wisdom that the GOP needs to move on and leave the former House Speaker in the rear-view mirror. The Republican Party does not need more leaders like Rush Limbaugh, Mitch McConnell and Sarah Palin -- short on ideas but long on purely reactionary opposition to the president's agenda. 

Even as much as I admire John McCain, it is clear that, as David Brooks noted, he would turn out to be a lousy leader of an ideological movement. His outside-the-box policy prescriptions, often maddening to self-styled "true" conservatives, are not the type that the GOP rank-and-file would consistently support.

This fascinating NY Times magazine feature on Newt paints a picture of a man who is brimming with ideas, and his speech earlier this week shows a man who clearly is fixing for a brawl with Obama. Author Matt Bai suggests that a 12-year stranglehold on Congress and an 8-year hold on the presidency have sapped intellectual institutions like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute of energy and ideas. But Gingrich -- perhaps due to his embarrassing exile from Washington in 1998 -- has largely remained on the periphery of conservative power and thought, and therefore out of the governing majority.

Let's be clear that Newt has tons of baggage. Tons. Critics will no doubt drudge up his infamous complaint about being denied a better seat on Air Force One after a state funeral. And, much more importantly, who can forget his extramarital affair that took place during the exact same time he and House Republicans made Bill Clinton the first sitting president to suffer impeachment? In his terrific 2004 offering "Rome Wasn't Burnt in a Day," former GOP congressman and current MSNBC host Joe Scarborough paints an unflattering picture of Newt as an abrasive, power-hungry dictator who believed his only weapon against the Clinton White House was to be as cutthroat as humanly possible, even within his own caucus. It's true that time heals all wounds, but I wonder if that's the case when one has made as many enemies on Capitol Hill -- even inside his own party -- as Gingrich.

While proving more than willing to work with the Clinton White House during his heyday -- see: NAFTA, welfare reform and the balanced budget in 1997 -- Gingrich was and still remains a bulwark of mainstream conservative thought. The base loves him, and his undeniable political skills and willingness to work across the aisle should not be discounted.

Additionally, Bai piece in the Times Magazine evinces a man who is an absolute idea factory. Gingrich still text messages, almost daily, John Boehner's chief of staff as well as Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan with new ideas and policy prescriptions. He toured the country a few years back with none other than Hillary Clinton, discussing health care reform. And unlike the popular conservative position taken by Limbaugh, et al., Gingrich told House Minority Whip Eric Cantor that if Obama chooses to govern from the center, "you have to work with him." What's particularly encouraging was another remark to Bai: "I don't actually build oppositions. I build the next governing majority. I have no interest in being an opposition party."

The Republican Party is completely bereft of this type of attitude, and this is why Gingrich could prove to be so valuable. Conservatives' energy seems to be summarily spent on screaming "No!" at every Obama move, no matter how rational it might be.

Pollster Frank Luntz told this to Bai of Gingrich when Newt came to Washington: "He himself was the counterculture. If people had run their own local campaigns up to then, he nationalized them. If people ran simplistically, he made things more complicated. If people ran by telling you how 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."

As Bai correctly noted, the Contract with America itself was a new beginning itself. "[It] 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."

Put simply, Gingrich is a leader who would make intellectuals feel welcome under the Republican tent -- probably because he himself is extraordinarily smart. This would be a welcome change.

I suppose the point of my remarks is to point out to conservatives that, if you would like a snowball's chance to retake the White House in 2012, you have a better option than Sarah Palin. The virtual architect of 1994's Contract with America is a phenomenally skilled politician, full of ideas, and who has shown an understanding that the Republican Party tent must expand if the party is to reclaim its past glory. The contrast between Gingrich and the Alaska governor are immense -- Palin is inexperienced, completely unknowledgeable about world affairs, becomes more politically toxic the more she opens her mouth, and is a policy lightweight, if not a laughingstock. Gingrich, on the other hand, is a seasoned Washington veteran, a true cutting-edge ideas man, phenomenally skilled politically, and opponents take him seriously. 

Pull the lever for Jindal or Pawlenty should you prefer, but if you're seriously considering supporting Palin, it's time to get your head out of the sand.

To close, from Newt himself: "Most Republicans are not entrepreneurial. 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 long live ideas.

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