Politics & Policy

The Gingrich Gestalt

From the Dec. 31, 2011, issue of NR

I was wrong about Newt. Or, as Newt would say, I was fundamentally wrong. Fundamentally and profoundly wrong. I was as adverbially wrong about Newt as it’s possible to be. Back in the spring, during an analysis of the presidential field, I was asked by Sean Hannity what I thought of Gingrich. If memory serves, I guffawed. I suggested he was this season’s Alan Keyes — a guy running for president to boost his speaking fees but whose candidacy was otherwise irrelevant. I said I liked the cut of this Tim Pawlenty fellow, who promptly self-destructed. There would be a lot of that in the months ahead: Michele Bachmann ODing on Gardasil, Rick Perry floating the trial balloon of his candidacy all year long, only to puncture it with the jaunty swing of his spur ten minutes into the first debate. And when all the other Un-Romney of the Week candidates were gone, there was Newt, the last man standing, smirking, waddling to the debate podium. Unlike the niche candidates, he offers all the faults of his predecessors rolled into one: Like Michele Bachmann, his staffers quit; like Herman Cain, he spent the latter decades of the last century making anonymous women uncomfortable, mainly through being married to them; like Mitt Romney, he was a flip-flopper, being in favor of government mandates on health care before he was against them, and in favor of big-government climate-change “solutions” before he was against them, and in favor of putting giant mirrors in space to light American highways by night before he was agai . . . oh, wait, that one he may still be in favor of. So, if you live in the I-95 corridor, you might want to buy blackout curtains.

But, when you draw them, Newt’s still there, shimmering beguilingly, which is the one adverb I fundamentally never thought I’d be using for this most fundamentally adverbial of candidates. A year ago, we were still talking about Palin and Daniels and Christie and Jindal and Ryan, an embarrassment of riches. Barely a month ago, Cain and 9-9-9 were riding high, an embarrassment of a different kind, and Gingrich was still a single-digit asterisk. But, like Gussie Fink-Nottle, we are all Newt-fanciers now. On the eve of Iowa it seems the Republican base’s dream candidate is a Clinton-era retread who proclaims himself a third Roosevelt, with Taft’s waistline and twice as many ex-wives as the first 44 presidents combined; a lead zeppelin with more baggage than the Hindenburg; a self-help guru crossed with a K Street lobbyist, which means he’s helped himself on a scale few of us could dream of. For this the Tea Party spent three years organizing and agitating?

Gingrich’s timing is brilliant — if it was planned. And, if it’s accidental, it’s kind of freaky. You’ll recall that two decades ago, in one of his many Post-it notes to himself, Newt wrote: “Gingrich — primary mission. Advocate of civilization. Definer of civilization. Teacher of the rules of civilization.” I’m not sure I’m quite ready to acknowledge Newt as the “definer of civilization,” but he is certainly the teacher of the new rules of primary season. Consultants, money, endorsements are for schlubs. The daring candidate is out there running on portentous adverbs: In the land of Cain and Perry, the polysyllabic man is king. Iowa is now all that stands between Newt and the nomination. If he wins there, you might expect New Hampshire to protect its brand by voting for the non-Newt. Instead, what’s left of Romney’s softening lead in the Granite State will vanish as legions of nominal “independents” flood the Republican primary to vote for the candidate they figure will be easiest to beat in the general — as happened in 1996, when more than a few of my liberal neighbors figured why waste your vote renominating Clinton when you can cross over, boost Pat Buchanan, and sabotage Bob Dole. From New Hampshire, the race moves to South Carolina and Florida, where Gingrich is already ahead, and thence to a slew of southern primaries, to the vast majority of whose electorate Mitt is a Massachusetts squish and to the rest a demonic cultist. So the fate of the Romney campaign now rests on some other candidate — Ron Paul — figuring out a way to stop Newt in Iowa.

Warned against his tendency to self-glorification, Gingrich reacted to his amazing revival by modestly comparing himself to Reagan, Thatcher, and the founders of Walmart and McDonald’s. He left it to Joe McQuaid, publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader, to produce a comparison more appropriate to a statesman-historian of his stature: Winston Churchill. Like Churchill resigning as first lord of the Admiralty after the debacle of Gallipoli, Gingrich resigned as Speaker after the humiliation of the 1998 midterms. Like Churchill spending years in the political wilderness, Gingrich spent years in the wilderness of K Street. Like Gingrich demanding that Barney Frank and Chris Dodd be sent to jail for political profiteering, Churchill favored summary execution for the Axis leaders. Like Gingrich getting $1.8 million for services as a “historian” to Freddie Mac, Churchill was on a seven-figure retainer from Goebbels. No, hang on . . . Like Newt on Air Force One, Winston was made to exit King George VI’s Gold State Coach from the rear door. No, that’s not it . . .

Newt, says former New Hampshire governor John H. Sununu, is “inconsistent, erratic, untrustworthy, and unprincipled.” But, up against an untrustworthy, unprincipled opponent of consistently non-erratic soporific caution, that’s more than enough. Mitt Romney flutters no hearts. If you believe, as many Republican voters do, that a second Obama term is an existential threat to the republic, the house-trained torpor of the Romney campaign is an affront. Whether Newt is the antidote to it is a thornier question. The 44th president doesn’t loom especially large on the Gingrich canvas: If Newt were a disaster movie, Obama would be one of those bit players who get swept away in the general avalanche of devastation. As Gingrich laid it out to Newsweek, “‘You take brain science, you take personal and Social Security savings, you take offering the poor the opportunity to work and have a paycheck instead of food stamps, you take Lean Six Sigma’ — a management-efficiency doctrine, his latest fascination — ‘and suddenly you have a Gestalt that is in many ways conservative, but in many ways very moderate.’”

“You have a Gestalt”? Would Rick Perry have a Gestalt? Or Herman Cain? Romney might, but the consultants would have advised against mentioning it after it tested badly with the focus group. Bush was never in danger of having a Gestalt, nor Dole. And, with Newt’s Gestalt, brain science and Social Security savings accounts are only the beginning! You take the repeal of Obamacare, you take a 12.5 percent corporate-tax rate, you take community illegal-immigrant-legalization boards, you take airborne lasers and fire them at North Korea, you take the oceans and pump nitrogen into them to end global warming, you take Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus and apply it as a business model to the Congressional Budget Office, you take Deepak Chopra on deep-pan pizza, and suddenly you have a candidate who knows the difference between Gestalt and Gstaad in a way that is kind of conservative but also very . . . 

Whoa, hold up there. What exactly is so conservative about the Newt Gestalt? When Romney dared him to return his Freddie Mac windfall, Gingrich responded by demanding that Mitt “give back all of the money he’s earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain.” That’s a cute line if you’re a 32-year-old Transgender and Colonialism major trying to warm up the drum circle at Occupy Wall Street, but it’s very odd coming from the supposedly more-conservative candidate on the final stretch of a Republican primary. When Romney attacked Perry’s views on Social Security by accusing him of wanting to shove Granny off a cliff, he was recycling the most shopworn Democratic talking point. Newt effortlessly trumps that by recycling the laziest anti-globalist anarchist talking point. At Freddie Mac, Newt was peddling influence to a quasi-governmental entity. At Bain Capital, Mitt Romney was risking private equity in private business enterprise. What sort of “conservative” would conflate the two?

With his numbers sinking, Mitt was driven to go negative. Asked where his policies differed from Gingrich’s, Romney cut to the chase: “We could start with his idea to have a lunar colony that would mine minerals from the moon.” You can’t tell the players without a scorecard, folks. Both leading conservative candidates have supported government mandates on health care. Both leading conservative candidates have supported massive expansion of entitlements. But they differ on the critical issue of whether we should use large numbers of welfare claimants to mine unpasteurized green cheese from the dark side of the moon. To be fair to Gingrich, he’s generally sounder on economic issues than Romney: Mitt’s reforms would leave us with a corporate-tax rate twice as high as Newt’s, and, in contrast to the Gingrich abolition of taxes on capital gains, Romney is proposing to end them only for those making under $200,000 because it would be wrong to “spend our precious tax dollars for a tax cut.” When “conservatives” think tax cuts are government “spending,” who needs Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank?

I have little fear that a Gingrich administration will be spending money on lunar mining or giant space mirrors or genetically modifying plant life around the planet to suck all the carbon out. But I rather doubt we’ll get the 12.5 percent corporate-tax rate and the abolition of the tax on capital gains, either. Newt is said to be “unpredictable.” This is true in the narrow sense that one would not have predicted that a social faux pas in placement on state transportation to the Yitzhak Rabin funeral would lead him to shut down the federal government. But, aside from such offenses to his amour-propre, Newt is actually extremely predictable. The surest way to bet is that the big-government stuff will happen and the rest won’t. It was Newt who gave us S-CHIP, the biggest expansion of Medicaid since the program was created. On the other hand, when it came to holding the line on “tax credits” for people who don’t pay any taxes, Gingrich looked into Clinton’s eyes and melted. Newt defends his big-government inclinations by placing them in an historical context of a muscular activist Washington, citing, for example, the Homestead Act of 1862. As it happens, I would be in favor of a new Homestead Act. Government owns far too much land, greater than the sovereign territory of many other major nations, and that fact alone supports the self-indulgent delusion that America can chug along as the Sierra Club writ large, a giant wildlife preserve that no longer needs to be in any business so vulgar as energy extraction, all of which can be outsourced (if you’re Obama) to Latin America or (if you’re Gingrich) to the moon. A small-government conservative might conclude that America would benefit from the equivalent of Mrs. Thatcher’s decision in 1979 to sell off public housing to its tenants: It’s not an especially big thing, but it’s a way of communicating your understanding of the relationship between the citizen and the state. In that sense, few of Gingrich’s proposals bear comparison with the Homestead Act: Instead of enabling Americans to take risks and push the frontiers, they incline mostly to the expansion of bureaucracy and an increase in dependency. As a result of Gingrich’s “reforms,” four out of ten American children are on Medicaid.

Presumably this is what he meant when he told Newsweek that his Gestalt is “in many ways conservative, in many ways very moderate.” I’d prefer to formulate it this way: Gingrich is a pushover for progressivism who’s succeeded in passing himself off as a hard-line right-wing bastard. Which is why Democrats who make the mistake of believing their own talking points on Newt invariably have to improvise hastily. In 2007 John Kerry found himself booked for a debate with Gingrich on climate change and had his speechwriters prepare some boilerplate about Newt’s “marching in lockstep with the climate-change deniers.” Unfortunately for him, the former Speaker spoke first and announced that man-made global warming was a real threat that we needed to address “very actively.” He praised as “a very interesting read” Kerry’s unreadable book on the subject, and for good measure added that he was “very worried about polar bears” because “my name ‘Newt’ actually comes from the Danish ‘Knut,’ and there’s been a major crisis in Germany over a polar bear named ‘Knut.’” Kerry abandoned his prescripted attack on Gingrich, hailed his candor, and put his arm around him. Lest the paying customers feel cheated by the bipartisan love-in, the senator attempted to put a bit of clear blue water between him and the ruthless right-wing bastard by raising the possibility that perhaps Gingrich did not share his enthusiasm for cap-and-trade. Newt said he was willing to be persuaded. “I am going to sell a few more books for you, John,” he declared.

I’m not saying that the presidential debates will end with Gingrich offering to pen a new foreword to Dreams from My Father, only that anyone banking on Newt to clobber Obama is flying on blind faith.

By the way, “Knut” is not the name just of a German polar bear, but also of the Danish and English king better known to us as “Canute” — the fellow who, at what is now Westminster, took his throne to the shore and commanded the incoming tide not to wet his feet. It declined to obey, as Canute knew it would: He staged the performance in order to teach his courtiers a lesson in the limits of kingly power. No such intimations of human limitation afflict the new Knut. Few politicians are more incisive at identifying the absurdities of America’s bloated, sclerotic leviathan — as he pointed out recently, the headquarters of the U.S. military’s Africa Command is in Stuttgart, which even Herman Cain might recognize as barely qualifying as the general ballpark. But no other candidate on the right shares the boundless confidence that Leviathan will work just swell if only Knut the Great is there to command it. For Republicans, this is not someone who is both “very conservative” and “very moderate,” but someone who is potentially the worst of all worlds: a man who embraces big-government solutions to health care, climate change, and all the rest, but who gets damned as a mean-spirited vindictive right-wing hater — the Gingrich who stole Christmas, to revive Newsweek’s 1994 cover story.

And, as predictably unpredictable as Gingrich is, there remains the drearier routine of his post-Speaker career. When Churchill was forced from the Admiralty in 1915, he went on to serve with the Sixth Battalion, the Royal Scots Fusiliers on the Western Front. By contrast, when he was forced from the speakership, Newt stayed in Washington working his Rolodex. These are different times, but even so the Freddie Mac business is not a small thing. Perhaps the single most repellent feature of the political class that has served America so disastrously in recent decades is its shameless venality in parlaying “public service” into a guarantee of an eternal snout at the trough. Newt writes bestselling books about government, produces DVDs about government, sets up websites about government, but he is as foreign to genuine private-sector wealth creation as any life politician. Indeed, his endurance in Washington represents one of the worst aspects of contemporary “public service” — that a life in politics no longer depends on anything so whimsical as the votes of the people.

So what does that leave? Tonally, his confident swagger is more appealing to the Republican base than Romney’s unctuous aw-shucks wholesomeness — just as John McCain’s maverickiness was more appealing than Romney last time around. And we know how that worked out for the GOP. The Dems are confident that this is a gift from the heavens: The Stupid Party is stupid enough to put up a scowly, jowly fat guy whose name is a byword for everything from the Nineties Mr. and Mrs. Moderate don’t want to revive.

But Newt wouldn’t be where he is right now if the conventional wisdom were all that wise. It’s easy to dismiss the futurological mumbo-jumbo of his accumulated brainstorms — “the Triangle of American Progress,” “the Four Great Truths,” “the Five Pillars of American Civilization,” “the Five Pillars of the 21st Century,” “the Nine Zones of Creativity,” “the Fourteen Steps to Renewing American Civilization” — except that right now he’s heading for the nomination and Paul Ryan and Mitch Daniels aren’t. The Nine Zones and Fourteen Steps have been distilled to the One Singular Sensation: Newt lui-même. The SAS, the British special forces, have a motto: “Who dares wins.” Unlike Mitt, Newt dares — and he may yet win. As the old Dem bumper stickers used to say, “Newt Happens.”

Mark Steyn, a National Review columnist, is the author of After America: Get Ready for Armageddon. This article originally appeared in the December 31, 2011, issue of National Review.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”


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