The casual TV viewer has probably noticed two things during the past few days — there’s a war in the Middle East, and Newt Gingrich is commenting on it.
Gingrich has been a ubiquitous analyst on the war — ubiquity being one of the tireless, outsized former House speaker’s favorite qualities. In between appearances in his role as a commentator for the Fox News Channel, Gingrich announced on Meet the Press that we are in the midst of World War III. A few days later, Hezbollah declared that it welcomed World War III, nicely capturing the moment: Simultaneous with its shooting war with Israel, Hezbollah is in a war of words with Newt Gingrich.
The old conventional wisdom about Gingrich was that we wouldn’t have him to kick around anymore. The new conventional wisdom is that he’s back, and he’s doing the kicking. Ousted by his own party after its losses in the 1998 midterm elections, Gingrich has reestablished himself as a party leader through sheer intellectual energy. He has had something intelligent to say about literally every issue of the hour, from health care to Katrina to the war on terror. “He has helped himself immensely — he’s all over the place,” says former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie.
Gingrich is partly benefiting from a beneath-the-surface conservative exasperation with President Bush. In 2000, Bush represented a break from Gingrich’s brainy, hyperpartisan, government-cutting conservatism, for something more personable, more bipartisan and more comfortable with government. After six years of Bush, many conservatives are ready for a no-holds-barred, limited-government brainiac again.
What thrills Republicans about Gingrich’s media appearances is the sense of intellectual mastery — that he has the arguments, along with the words, to beat all comers. And he hasn’t been shy about criticizing the Bush administration or the Republican Congress. This puts Gingrich in the enviable position of being a keen Beltway player, but one not associated with an unpopular GOP establishment.
Opinion is split about whether Gingrich will run for the 2008 presidential nomination, but no one doubts that he would love to. A GOP strategist says tactical considerations won’t loom so large in Gingrich’s calculations: “The only question for Newt will be, ‘Can I devise the message that will rouse the nation?’”
Gingrich is still in bad odor for many Washington insiders who remember his often self-indulgent, erratic four-year run as speaker. Grass-roots Republicans, however, don’t share their dismissiveness. “When you go out in the real world,” says Gillespie, “if Newt was there last week, they’re still talking about it.” If Gingrich ran, he would immediately raise the bar for the rest of the field, both in terms of policy and of rhetoric. “If you get him in front of an audience talking with other candidates, he’ll look the best,” says a Gingrich-friendly insider.
It’s hard to see any plausible path to victory for Gingrich unless George Allen and Mitt Romney fizzle, freeing up room for an anti-McCain conservative. But the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses are a conservative bastion. In 2000, even unserious candidates Alan Keyes and Gray Bauer combined for 23 percent of the vote. “I think he could do very well in Iowa,” says top Republican pollster John McLaughlin, “and you never know.”
If one of Gingrich’s strengths is that he is enamored of ideas, a weakness is that he seems too enamored of his own. He has ethical issues from his time as speaker related to a book contract and the funding of a college course he taught, but in the Age of Abramoff those scandals seem quaint. More potentially damaging is his messy personal life and the sense of arrogance that sank his speakership.
Whatever happens, Gingrich stands to be the party’s most important intellectual table-setter. “Whoever wins,” says Gillespie, “is going to have spent a lot of time talking about what Newt was talking about.” There are worse places for the party to look for a renewed agenda.
— Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years. © 2006 by King Features Syndicate