During a scathing and often hilarious discourse Wednesday night at New York’s Cooper Union, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich at times sounded like a candidate for president himself as he chided the current declared crop of presidential aspirants for lacking substance. Although Gingrich deflected questions about whether he intends to run for president in 2008 — “the most likely campaign… is going to be two New Yorkers, one of whom sounds like a New Yorker,” he told event moderator Tim Russert — he gave the polished and energetic speech of someone who’s giving it serious thought.
Just a few minutes’ cab ride from the studio where John McCain was taping The Late Show with David Letterman, Gingrich and former New York Governor Mario Cuomo were addressing Cooper Union’s historic (and packed) Great Hall. The two leaders criticized the shallowness of the current campaign and issued a challenge to the candidates: Hold some serious talks about our country’s problems, or you don’t deserve to be president.
Gingrich and Cuomo argued that all of the candidates should engage in a series of long, robust policy discussions and public debates as an antidote to what they see as a worsening debasement of America’s political culture — a process that Gingrich described as “a mutual synergistic decay between candidates, consultants and the media.”
Gingrich and Cuomo chose the location because of its symbolic value as the site of the 1860 address that, historians argue, catapulted Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. Gingrich proposed that the 2008 candidates agree to a series of debates and discussions in the spirit of Lincoln’s devotion to “language, ideas, and reasoned thought.”
“Nothing will take more poison out of the system than requiring the candidates to be in the same room with partisans from both sides, because you cannot biologically be as vicious and as nasty as the current system if you’re face to face,” Gingrich said. “And if you can be, then you’re pathological and you’re disqualified.”
Gingrich got big laughs with a well-timed mix of mock bewilderment and real indignation as he took the audience on a tour of the “bizarre examples of lunacy” that characterize the modern presidential campaign. Gingrich decried the media’s recent obsession with David Geffen, “a left-wing billionaire who became unhappy because his former friends didn’t do what he thought they would do when he bribed them, and then they didn’t stay bribed enough so he turned on them because he’s really unhappy about being lied to, because he thought surely they would actually do what he wanted when he bribed them.”
“The news media loved that topic, because it was simple, it avoided ideas, it was negative and it was gossip, “Gingrich said after the laughter and applause died down. “What more could you ask for?”
Moving from process to policy, Gingrich contrasted bureaucratic bungling (“The machine doesn’t work and nobody’s having hearings, whether it’s in New Orleans or it’s in Baghdad.”) to the efficiency of the private sector, which he illustrated by suggesting that the Bush administration try tracking the nation’s 11-13 million illegal immigrants, which it can’t seem to find, by sending them all packages via FedEx. He also ridiculed the Bush administration’s inability to deal with Iran and North Korea. After ticking off a list of recent missile and nuclear weapons tests in those two countries – tests the Bush administration branded as “unacceptable” but nonetheless accepted — Gingrich said, “In an earlier and simpler world, this was called appeasement.”
He sounded increasingly like a candidate for president as he moved through his speech. Gingrich talked about the children — bringing his grandchildren into the discussion of national-security policy, saying, “I worry very much, because I think they are in greater danger than I ever was during the Cold War.” Then he devoted the last third of his policy discussion to health care — certainly an area of interest for the man who founded of the Center for Health Transformation, but also an issue that’s expected to dominate domestic policy debates throughout the 2008 election cycle.
Cuomo showed the same passion as Gingrich when he spoke about restoring the public discourse from its current shoddy state and encouraging the candidates to engage in more debates and discussions. But when he turned to policy, he sounded like a political relic reciting a greatest hits collection of 2006-era Democratic talking points, rather than a political pro who has crafted a unique message in preparation for a White House run. Think “tax cuts for the rich” vs. “World War III.”
During the subsequent Q&A with Russert (now down to just one crutch), he asked Cuomo which two candidates should win their party’s nominations in 2008. Cuomo played it safe and wouldn’t say which Democrat he prefers, but he did say that on the Republican side, “Newt would make a terrific nominee.” Watching from the audience last night, it looked like Cuomo wasn’t the only one on stage with that idea.