Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Newt Gingrich and the benefits of American amnesia

So I surfed over to Fox News on Sunday morning, and there he was again – the biggest flirt in the Republican party. And he said this about himself:

“People may decide that, in fact, they want to take a second look….Nothing in America is irreparable. This is a country where second, third, and fourth chances seem a permanent part of our culture.”

And last November, on Fox again, he said that, among the conservatives who “produced Ronald Reagan and produced Barry Goldwater, there’s a yearning for a clearer voice of conservatism….And in September (2007), I’ll be glad to come back and talk with you about running for president.”

But Newt (no last name needed, a rarity in politics) isn’t the only one who’s working to keep Newt in play. The Washington Times reported last Friday that, in virtually all the polls, Newt ranks a solid third as the ’08 choice among Republican voters; and the newspaper quoted Tom Edmonds, a GOP strategist, as blaming “the liberal press” for refusing to acknowledge Newt's potential as an ’08 candidate. (In truth, the so-called “liberal” press would be thrilled with a Newt candidacy, because he is probably the most loquacious Republican since Teddy Roosevelt.)

Meanwhile, pollster-turned-pundit Dick Morris, whose prime quest right now is to find somebody who can beat Hillary Clinton, boosted Newt in his latest column, lauding the architect of the ’94 conservative revolution as “the only real genius in the race.” In Morris’ view, Newt can fill the current vacuum in the Republican contest. Because conservative voters are highly suspicious of Rudy Giuliani (because of his track record favoring gay rights and abortion rights), John McCain (because of his flip flops), and Mitt Romney (ditto on flip flops), they “seem eager for a ‘real Republican’ to challenge for the nomination.”

There also have been reports that Newt, the ex-House speaker, has been conferring privately with House Republicans, offering tips on how the minority can productively harass its Democratic oppressors; indeed, he is widely credited with goading the GOP into playing up Nancy Pelosi’s request for a government plane to San Francisco.

All told, his whole flirtation strategy – wink at the electorate via Fox, find reasons to tour the early primary states, deliver weighty speeches about the American future – seems designed to inspire restive Republicans to summon him back to duty. He wants to be drafted, in a sense. Reportedly, he wants to be like Abe Lincoln, who rallied Republicans in 1860 through the sheer power of his words, most notably in a now-famous speech at Cooper Union. One might conclude that it’s a tad presumptuous for Newt, who fell from power nine years ago, to compare himself to Lincoln, but, on the other hand, Newt has never been a guy who thinks small.

Yet even though it’s possible to round up some bullish quotes about Newt – The Washington Times quotes an Iowa GOP activist who says that “everybody loves Gingrich. He is a hero” – what seems most striking about all this low-grade buzz is that so many people seem to have purged their memories. The fact is, Newt in power was no conservative savior. He often ran afoul of his colleagues, and he led them to an embarrassing defeat.

People forget, for instance, that the House speaker was nearly overthrown in 1997, by conspirators that included Tom DeLay, in part because he was not deemed to be sufficiently conservative. They felt that Newt had caved to President Clinton on a number of key budget issues (at the time, the conservative Weekly Standard magazine assailed Newt for committing “a profound act of political self-mutilation”). They complained when Newt invited Jesse Jackson to join him on the House podium in January of ’97. They were angry when Newt refused to launch a frontal assault on affirmative action. They didn’t like it when he defended the National Endowment for the Arts and broke bread with liberal activist and actor Alec Baldwin.

People also tend to forget that it was Newt, as a key GOP strategist, who forced his party to overreach during the Clinton impeachment crisis. At a key moment during his reign, he misjudged the national mood. During the autumn of ’98, as a campaign tactic for the midterm elections, he spotlighted the Monica Lewinsky scandal and pushed for impeachment (at a time when he was conducting his own extramarital affair). But, as the voters made clear in November, when the Democrats scored gains in both the House and Senate, impeachment was generally viewed as excessive punishment for dirtbag behavior. Within a week of the election, Newt quit the speakership – as well as his seat.

Newt’s colleagues also complained incessantly, back in the day, about his erratic managerial style (as one Republican told the Washington Post in 1998, “There would be times where you were in one meeting and he would be absolutely resolute on a position. And the next meeting, three hours later, he would completely reverse himself and berate people who were holding the position he had advocated three hours earlier. It would just completely baffle you.”) So one naturally might wonder whether he has profoundly mellowed during his years in the private sector, working with his for-profit health care think tank and making 60 speeches a year at roughly $50,000 a pop.

And there’s more. A lot of conservatives blame their ’06 midterm electoral losses on a House Republican majority that had lost its zeal for conservative reform, and that instead had become the corrupt party of government. In fact, Newt has said this lately. Yet what so many people seem to forget is that Newt himself was a principal architect of the lobbyist-lawmaker nexus which later became known as the K Street Project.

Starting in the mid-‘90s, shortly after becoming House Speaker, Newt helped devise the program to place ideological conservatives in key corporate lobbying jobs; in return, the lobbyists helped write corporate-friendly legislation that targeted federal regulatory agencies; and in return for that, a grateful K Street ratcheted up their campaign donations to the GOP coffers. And remember Jack Abramoff, the poster child for GOP corruption in 2006? Lest we forget, here’s a line from a story about Abramoff that appeared in the nonpartisan National Journal magazine, in 1995: “The GOP victories in 1994 transformed (Abramoff) into a valuable asset, as law firms recruited activists with connections to the new Gingrich team."

Tom DeLay is generally credited (or blamed) today for this sweetheart arrangement, but, lest we forget, a respected Capitol Hill tabloid, The Hill, ran this headline when Newt quit in 1998: “Newt’s Departure Deflates Key Lobbyists.” (And, on the ethics front, lest we forget, it was Newt in 1997 who became the first sitting House Speaker to be formally reprimanded for an ethics breach – violating federal tax laws, and providing the chamber with false information.)

But, if Newt does stage a late entry into the GOP race, none of this might matter to conservative voters who are looking for a savior. American campaigns are generally about the future, not the past. He may be right when he says that America is about “second, third, and fourth chances.” Because it’s amnesia that makes it possible.