From the moment that Newt Gingrich arrived in the House of Representatives in 1979, he was overflowing with ideas. Pudgy, prolix, and prematurely gray, Gingrich tossed off policy proposals (government bonuses for poor children who learn to read, tax credits to help lower-income families buy computers); management theories (“There is a model I work off,” he told one interviewer: “visions, strategies, projects, and tactics”); legislative strategies (“It is my tactic to confront them so hard they have to respond”); and projections of the future (“My interest is in creating a positive, dynamic, high-tech, self-governing, free-market future”) in a torrent of words that suggested either a touch of genius or Tourette’s syndrome. He sometimes resembled a human PowerPoint presentation. Gingrich’s whirling activity and tireless proselytizing touched on almost every conceivable subject of policy and political debate. But at its root was a simple injunction: Republicans must sharpen their differences with Democrats in every possible way and create clear, bright lines of division between the parties. “I’m tough in the House because when I arrived the Republican Party was a soft institution that lacked the tradition of fighting,” Gingrich said years after his arrival. “You had to have somebody who was willing to fight.”
With that militant vision, Gingrich began an insurrection against the viewpoint that had dominated the House GOP since the 1950s. An Army brat and a former history professor at West Georgia College, Gingrich came to in Washington as the sole Republican in Georgia’s congressional delegation. He was inspired by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, but from the outset he was never an ideological purist. His conservatism was leavened by a generous (and often prescient) futurism that led him to worry about such things as how technology might empower the disabled for more productive lives. What truly set him apart was his capacity to formulate a long-term plan for redefining both parties, and his willingness to pursue almost any means necessary to advance it. Even as a junior member, his ambition was boundless. “I want to shift the entire planet,” he told The Washington Post in 1985.
There’s a back-to-the-future air about Gingrich’s reemergence as a top-tier Republican presidential contender nearly 14 years after he resigned from the House (amid a backlash within his own caucus after the GOP’s losses in the 1998 midterm election). As a presidential candidate, Gingrich doesn’t look much like the scattershot, deal-making speaker who, as Rick Santorum likes to remind audiences, faced a rebellion in his ranks just three years after leading them to their first House majority in four decades. Instead, the Gingrich visible to audiences today is more reminiscent of the guerrilla leader who plotted the GOP’s long march back to power. He is running as Mao the revolutionary in the caves, not Mao the helmsman in Beijing.
As a junior member in what seemed a permanent minority, Gingrich found that often he could be heard only by framing the conservative case against Democrats in language that shattered the era’s boundaries of politically acceptable speech. The instincts that Gingrich honed, and the strategies he applied, while shouting from the backbenches 30 years ago are at the center of his success today. “I used to call him the great framer: He could frame an issue more effectively than anybody I know,” said Republican former Rep. Vin Weber, a close Gingrich ally in those years who is supporting Mitt Romney in 2012. “He did it for the House Republicans for 14 years. I can see in this race [that] he doesn’t always get it right the first time, but he gets there in framing the issue: the Massachusetts moderate versus the Reagan conservative, a manager versus someone who can change the government. That’s what Romney has to worry about.”
In this contest, Gingrich has built his campaign largely around his commanding performance in Republican presidential debates. Partly, GOP voters have responded to his fluent in a wide array of issues. But mostly, many observers agree, he has thrilled the party’s most ideological elements with his lacerating attacks against President Obama, Democrats, and the news media.
“Gingrich certainly is effective in capturing a tone and tenor that really resonates with a great deal of Republicans out there, and Mitt Romney just has a harder time doing it,” said Steve Schmidt, campaign manager for John McCain in 2008.
“Tip made a critical error when he took on Newt, because he elevated Newt.”—Former Rep. Tony Coelho, D-Calif.
A Gingrich jeremiad launches words like projectiles in rapid fire; he is to the usual style of political invective what an AK-47 is to a Colt 45. In his election-night victory speech in South Carolina alone, Gingrich denounced Obama as “the most effective food-stamp president in American history” and “a danger to this country” who subscribes to “the radicalism of Saul Alinsky” and wants to transform America into “a brand-new secular Europe-style bureaucratic socialist system”; described federal judges as “antireligious bigots”; and insisted that “elites … have been trying for a half-century to force us to quit being Americans and to become some kind of other system.”
This article appears in the January 28, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.