There was a time when Newt Gingrich was the third-most prolific reviewer on Amazon.com. There was a time when Newt Gingrich was an unheralded but effective leader on animal rights. There was a time when Newt Gingrich embodied a dynamic and lasting conservative majority. There was a time when Newt Gingrich could fairly be descried as plucky.
Those days are gone.
Gingrich took to the stage Thursday night at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference with "Eye of the Tiger" blaring through the ballroom. After promising a keynote that "changes the tone" of the political debate, and transforms the Republican image from "the party of no" to "the party of yes," he went on to deliver a speech as dense with brimstone as Mount Vesuvius. He railed against the "secular socialist machine" of the "perfectly unrepresentative left wing," calling the situation in Washington today "the most serious conflict since the 1850s." He went on to offer a three-stage plan of action for a new congressional majority.
Step 1: Recruit candidates at every level for November, from dogcatcher to senator. "A rising tide lifts all boats, but you've got to have boats in the water."
Step 2: After retaking Congress, introduce positive legislation to enact in 2012.
Step 3: Retake the White House and repeal everything with President Obama's signature.
He spoke confidently of November, reminding the audience that prior to the Republican Revolution in 1994, the Democrats lost both New Jersey and Virginia. Taking Massachusetts is confirmation of change on the horizon. And surely, with opinion polls on their side and broken-glass elephants raring to vote, getting names on the ballot is essential to a definitive rebuke of "Obamaism." But what does Step 2 involve?
"A new Republican Congress in January that simply refuses to fund ANY LEGISLATION."
He is proposing, in other words, a government shutdown.
Because it worked so well for the Republicans in 1995.
His meaning of a "party of yes" is discipline in message. While refusing to fund everything from health care to cap and trade, the GOP should resolutely state yes to a balanced budget. Yes to better equipment for soldiers rather than lawyers attacking them. Yes to an American energy plan that produces American energy. Yes to "the right kind" of health care reform, the cornerstone of which is litigation reform. "There are many things," he stated, "that we can say yes to. And we must discipline ourselves to always start an answer with 'what I'm for.'"
This is message discipline 101, and in an academic environment, it's a plan that makes sense. But two years of obstruction--two years of refusing to fund any legislation--is a recipe for a 50-state Obama landslide in 2012.
Gingrich compared the current situation in America to Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four," and Poland under the Soviet Union, and proposed the campaign slogan of "2+2=4." It's a very clever slogan--Orwell and Camus are no slouches--and possibly the most politically tenable prescription of the evening. It is a foundation that not only highlights the unprecedented budget deficit and the shameful accounting that went into health care reform and the stimulus bill, but also allows candidates to articulate such basic concepts as "If you can't afford a house, don't buy it" and the insane "rubber room" teacher's union situation in New York City.
During a brief question-and-answer session, an SRLC delegate directly asked him if he is running for president in 2012, to which he responded that he would make that decision in February. And though he's got both a book and a movie coming out soon, in word, tone, and demeanor, Gingrich did not come across as a Head of State. Rather, he resembled the leader of the opposition in a parliamentary democracy.
"Shooting three-point shots may be clever, but it doesn't put anybody to work."
Perhaps he is angling for a Cheney-esque vice presidential slot, but with his personal baggage, one wonders if he fails the "do no harm" test. And to be sure, the GOP needs a leader. But when a serial "almost-candidate" proposes two years of principled political suicide, perhaps thoughtful Republicans should look elsewhere.
D.B. Grady is the author of Red Planet Noir.