Nothing Newt Under the Sun

The inevitable rise of Newt Gingrich.


The inevitability of Newt Gingrich's moment in the sun was itself inevitable. Like finicky department store shoppers trying on an endless series of not-quite-right outfits, Republican voters have been indecisively trying out candidates looking for someone, anyone who is both a perfect fit—or at least a decent Not Mitt. And if the GOP base had not stopped to browse Newt's offerings, enterprising members of the campaign media, always desperate for a newer, more interesting story, would have dropped the Newtron bomb anyway—if only to keep themselves interested.

But the risen Newt is neither as interesting nor as compelling a candidate as he clearly wants people to think he is. The new Newt thing is the same as the old one—frivolous, flighty, flip-flopping, mildly corrupt, and tremendously self-important.

The former Republican Speaker of the House fancies himself an expert on practically everything—space, science, health policy, international law, world history, the clash of civilizations. Throughout his life he's literally collected ideas by the shoebox: Starting in high school, he collected facts and quotes and assorted thoughts on scraps of paper and stuffed them into the cardboard containers, reportedly amassing about 50 in all, which he then used to help generate material for his early books. In recent years, he became a frequent book reviewer at Amazon.com, using the site's commenting features to publish more than 150 book reviews, many of which discussed idea-driven technothrillers set amidst world war and political intrigue.

So it's no surprise that in the endless rounds of American Idol-fied GOP debates this year, Gingrich appears to be running as much for philosopher king as for president—or at least as the world's most interesting dinner party guest. The Gingrich style mixes apocalyptic fear-mongering with sweeping historical narrative and frequent digressions into high-concept daydreams ("Why not aspire to build a real Jurassic Park?" he mused in his 1999 book To Renew America), all delivered in the tone of an elder professor making the rounds on the business consulting circuit.  

It's a style that's ensured Gingrich always has a place in the political media's limelight, even while he's busy denouncing the president for holding a "Kenyan, anti-colonial worldview." (Never mind that when he wrote his doctoral thesis, Gingrich thought colonialism was just fine.) In 2009, despite holding no office, he was the most frequent guest on Sunday morning's greatest bastion of Beltwayism, Meet the Press.

Since the start of his career, it's been clear that Gingrich has opinions about everything, and yet it's not clear what he stands for at all. Take health care, probably the most prominent policy debate of the last few years, and one that Gingrich has given special attention through his health policy shop, the Center for Health Transformation. Yet on Medicare, he's argued for voucher-based fundamental reform, criticized Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) proposed voucher-driven overhaul as a "radical" form of "right-wing social engineering," and also said that he would have voted for it.

His position on the individual mandate to purchase health insurance is just as tangled. He supported it in the 1990s, promoted the idea in a 2005 book, and reiterated his support for it again in May, arguing that, "There are ways to do it that make most libertarians relatively happy." And yet he's also declared himself adamantly opposed to the concept: "I am against any effort to impose a federal mandate on anyone because it is fundamentally wrong and I believe unconstitutional," he said in a campaign video.

If adopting a more moderate position on Medicare was Gingrich's attempt to differentiate himself from the rest of the GOP pack, it was a failure. The GOP already has a pandering health care flip-flopper in the race, and his name is Mitt Romney.

But the confusion may run deeper than that. Newt's desire to have it both ways extends to his own place in the world. As TPM's Benjy Sarlin recently noted, Gingrich, who served in the House from 1978 until 1999, claims that he is both an experienced Washington insider—"somebody who actually knows Washington"—and also an outsider: "I'm not a Washington figure," he told a group of reporters in May. He argues that his "outsider's viewpoint" allows him to "approach things like Washington that are probably very, very different from most traditional politicians."

Since leaving elected office, however, his approach to Washington has relied heavily on his insider status, which he has used to cash in. Starting just five months after he left Congress, the former House speaker earned his consulting firm between $1.6 and $1.8 million in fees from government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac, according to a Bloomberg News report earlier this week. Was he paid for lobbying, like so many ex-legislators? Not at all, he claims. He was merely a policy consultant whose role was to dispense advice in his capacity as a "historian."

Gingrich would have us believe that the mortgage backer paid seven figures for his wide-ranging erudition and the pleasure of his company. Yet given how long the media have happily lapped up this self-appointed philosopher king's antics, is it any surprise that he fully expects us to buy this idea? It may be that no one believes in Newt Gingrich's inevitability more than Newt Gingrich himself.

Peter Suderman is an associate editor at Reason magazine.