Brief Lives April 2006

Gingrich's Long Game

The former speaker of the House is looking for a second act. Will he get it?

This is a story, and a principle—the benefits of localizing government, and of building accountability and incentives into it, and of dragging it, kicking and screaming if need be, into the Information Age—that Newt carries with him into nearly every encounter and address. Most politicians have a stump speech; Newt has a handout and a reading list (it includes Peter Drucker's Effective Executive and Michael Lewis's Moneyball). Most politicians talk about which programs they want to expand and which they want to cut; Newt talks about Wal-Mart and Travelocity, FedEx and self-service gas stations. And with every topic he takes up, he circles back to the idea that our government doesn't work anymore, that it can't work, that it's as outdated as a nineteenth-century clerk "dipping his pen into an inkwell."

This isn't just a repackaged version of the GOP's old-time small-government religion, though. Newt likes to call his vision "21st Century Intelligent, Effective, Limited Government," but when there isn't space for the whole phrase, "Limited" is dropped. Transforming the public sector saves us money, he insists, but in the Newt agenda, all of that money could be spent—on a "LearnStat" or a "HealthStat"; on military and intelligence services; on grants and tax breaks for research and development; on monitoring the weight of potentially diabetic grade-schoolers. He's no less a big- government conservative than George W. Bush, in a way—he just has a better idea of what he wants government to do.

None of this is surprising. Newt's true ideology has always been futurism, rather than a more traditional conservatism, and it's when he talks about what's next that he really comes alive—as at a recent Capitol Hill lunch with Iowa officials, where someone asks about virtual-reality research at Iowa State University and Newt goes on a riff about putting grade-schoolers in a "360-degree virtual-reality space" to prepare them for the world of tomorrow.

This is the Newt who can sound like a visionary—and a crank. His real doppelgänger may be not Bill Clinton, to whom he often feels umbilically bound—the great 1990s rivals, both smart and southern and prematurely white-haired—but Al Gore, another wonk and futurist who was overshadowed by "the Man from Hope." Newt shares Gore's brains and big ideas, his commitment to reinventing government, his attention to policy detail. And he shares his weaknesses as well: the speeches that feel like lectures, the absence of the common touch, and the tendency toward self-importance. Both men are easy targets for a press corps that likes its politicians folksy and its sound bites glib, and both sometimes deserve the scorn. When Newt shows the Iowans a flowchart leading from "Current Ineffective Bureaucracies" to "Vision of Desired Future," and adds that he hopes to "invent a system" to move from the one to the other, it's easy to hear the tinny echo of Gore taking the credit for "creating the Internet."

But after six years of Bushian incuriosity, maybe the country—or at least the GOP—could use a little wonkish zeal and a few more politicians interested in precinct-level police tactics. Has any other Washington politician, I ask Professor Smith, come to see him about his CompStat research?

The answer is no—just Newt.

Still, Newt probably can't be president. The insiders know it: last December, when National Journal asked 100 Republican bigwigs to rank the '08 field, Newt came in ninth, just behind George Pataki. His former colleagues know it: the columnist Robert Novak recently reported that Newt has been approaching old allies to support an '08 bid, but finding no takers. And the public knows it: Newt hovers around 10 percent in polls of likely GOP voters, and in one he led all comers as the candidate respondents would definitely not vote for.

What's more, he must know it. "I'm a historian," he likes to say; he surely understands how hard it would be to return from exile, especially when so many people remember him as the man who shut down the government because Bill Clinton snubbed him on Air Force One.

In the flush of his early power, he favored grand historical analogies: he liked to bring up FDR, or Atatürk, or James Clavell's Toranaga, the fictionalized founder of Japan's Tokagawa shogunate. So I ask him for an analogy to his current position—the former speaker seeking a second act, the man with an expansive vision for change but no obvious way of selling it.

At first he demurs. But ultimately he can't resist the question. He proposes Jean Monnet, who fathered the European Union without ever holding elected office. He describes how George Washington retired to private life after the Revolution and was deaf to political entreaties for years, until a call came that he couldn't ignore. He mentions Charles de Gaulle too, and Winston Churchill—each summoned back to save his nation in an hour of need. And Ronald Reagan, the oldest president we've ever had. "He played a very long game," Newt remarks. "He started calling communism evil in 1948. And forty years later, the Berlin Wall came down."

If you trade in big ideas, he adds a moment later, "you have to be a very long-range player." This has always been the secret of Newt's success: the willingness to take the long view, as when he imagined in 1980 that he would conquer Congress, and then finished the job fifteen years later. But you can't always reach out and seize your second act; sometimes you have to be summoned. Which is why Newt's new game is a waiting game—waiting for a second chance, and a call that may not come.

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Ross Douthat is an associate editor of The Atlantic.

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