Seeing Newt Gingrich prominently in the news stokes memories for me of the 1994 elections. Then, Gingrich was the architect of the Contract with America, a popular policy blueprint designed to address the nagging drift of the Clinton Administration and lingering problems of the Democratically controlled House for the prior 40 years. In some respects, not much has changed from the Newt Gingrich I knew then.
Those were heady days as the public clamored for national change, and the contract addressed growing concerns about our nation’s direction. Measures such as welfare reform, national security, legal-system reforms, stronger criminal codes, small-business support and fiscal responsibility were the cornerstones of the reform efforts. All were voted on in the House and many were passed. For four consecutive years in the 1990s, federal revenues exceeded federal spending. Newt Gingrich was speaker for the four pivotal years of the Contract’s implementation, leading the charge with the backing of a large majority of House Republicans.
Suddenly, ethics charges, the glare of publicity and Gingrich’s unpredictable personality took over. He exited elective office under a cloud, lost his speakership and paid a massive fine for violating House rules. But now, poor Newt is back on the national scene, and the problems that dogged him then dog him now.
Watching him speak after losing big in Iowa and Florida this election season reminded me of his infamous declarations in the mid-1990s, decrying President Bill Clinton’s decision to place him in the rear of Air Force One. That led, in part, to the 1995 government shutdown for which Gingrich and the Republican Congress were blamed. Democrats rushed to the House floor with a poster mocking Gingrich dressed as a big baby throwing a tantrum over the AF-1 incident. He became a lightning rod and a symbol of what ailed Congress.
Gingrich 2012 has changed little from the snubbed Gingrich of the 1990s. When he bitterly lashed out at the gracious Mitt Romney in Iowa and ungraciously ignored Romney, the big victor, in Florida, offering no humility or congratulations, Americans likely saw the real Newt Gingrich — creatively thoughtful and quick to turn an eloquent phrase, but petty, boorish and possessing the vindictive heart of an angry loser, qualities unattractive for an American president.
And that’s the biggest problem with a potential Gingrich presidency. He’s full of ideas, possessing the active mind and often the ability to express them with vigor and advocacy that attracts followers, but it’s impossible to know which Gingrich version will appear — the docile one we’ve seen periodically in the primary campaign, the aggressive Gingrich drawing wild applause, the petty and prickly Newt or the goofy one who wants to start a moon colony that will achieve celestial statehood? There are times when Gingrich shows he lacks the dignity — and reliability — to reside in the White House. Outlining plans for his first day in the White House after suffering a crushing loss in Florida is puzzling; it signals that Gingrich is a man sometimes detached from reality. Presidents don’t have the luxury of flitting from one issue to the next with contradictory solutions — as Gingrich often does.
Most Americans today ultimately want a solid and stable president, one who embraces essentially conservative ideals like those Gingrich espouses, the steadiness and business background of Romney and the simplistic consistency of Ron Paul on basic issues. So far, the only Republican who fits this bill is Romney, as Santorum struggles to remain relevant in his narrowly dogmatic way, and Ron Paul’s flawed positions on certain issues obscure his good ideas on others. Romney’s the only Republican who polls closely in a head-to-head with President Obama, and that’s important to Republicans this year. Romney frequently states the same fundamentally refreshing conservative positions that Gingrich emphasizes.
Florida may be the state most closely reflecting the national electorate; Romney won almost all demographics in the latest primary. That bodes well for him in November, despite the creeping increase in Obama’s approval rating, which remains below 50 percent. Expect Romney’s money advantage to grow over his Republican competitors as he soon racks up wins in coming primary states; the process will prepare him well for the November contest against President Obama.
Even though early primaries make average voters tire of the pettiness of politics, Republican debates are focusing voter energy on current issues and the principles that will help voters choose our nation’s leaders in 10 months. The next concern among Republicans is whether the primary process will be so nasty between the candidates that hard feelings by the unsuccessful candidates prevent Republican unity necessary for victories in November. Low approval ratings for Congress and the president underscore the public’s lack of confidence in government officials as reliable problem-solvers. And a bigger, more expensive federal government isn’t the answer, either.
That may be why Romney’s ascension is materializing as he stresses his private-sector qualifications. He also needs to understand that most voters want their president to relate to their lives, problems and aspirations — to understand their plight so that his presidency can be sensitive to it.
Romney’s greatest challenge lies in the efforts by his opponents to seize on interview comments and statements that they’ll use to define him as something other than he is. In politics, “you can’t get hurt for what you don’t say.”
It’s a rule Romney should practice.
George Nethercutt was first elected to Congress in 1994, representing the 5th District of Washington, including Spokane.