Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Gingrich Factor

As John Forbes Kerry takes a pass on 2008, Professor Daniel Drezner wonders if another, potential presidential candidate--former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich--can make the grade. Drezner notes a recent Fortune article highlighting Newt's serious--and thoughtful--proposal for fixing the nation's health care system. It's the centerpiece of his effort to build a groundswell among the GOP base, and launch a "draft Newt" movement for '08. If the GOP is looking for a "big ideas" man to help them retake the White House next year, Gingrich is definitely their guy.

But, as Drezner points out, does a "reinvented" Newt Gingrich have any appeal beyond the policy wonks and the most conservative elements of the Republican Party? I'll take a stab at that question and say the answer is "no." And my assessment has nothing to do with Newt's intellectual brillance or his political skills. When he engineered the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, Gingrich became public enemy #1 among Democrats, their friends in the MSM, and even certain Republicans. The Fortune piece notes that Gingrich barely survived an internal putsch by fellow House Republicans, only two years into his tenure as speaker. Gingrich was gone by 1999, driven out by ethics charges, Republican electoral setbacks, and internal dissatisfaction with his "egocentric" rule of the House. The same allegations that engineered his departure from the House eight years ago would certainly be resurrected for any '08 presidential bid.

But there's a more important reason that the "Draft Newt" movement will never get off the ground: the Grand Old Party is no longer the party for new ideas. Many Republicans blame George Bush's "bold" policies in the War on Terror for their recent electoral defeat, and they've become averse to political, social and economic risks. It's more than ironic that the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Reagan--men who ran and governed on big ideas--is becoming a party of retail politics and entitlements. Instead of pushing for the Fair Tax, the GOP is lining up to support an increase in the minimum wage that nothing but a sop to Big Labor.

And, lest we forget, this is the same Republican Party that passed a prescription drug plan for seniors that will add billions to the federal budget, with only the slightest nods toward competition and market-driven savings. Given its "new" orientation, the GOP of 2007 looks less like the band of Gingrich-led revolutionaires that seized control of Congress 13 years ago, and more like the party Gerry Ford, when the Republicans were a permanent political underclass.

But Newt is undeterred. His big idea plan would put individual Americans largely in care of their health care, introducing more market forces into the system, and allowing us to shop around for the best deals on doctors, hospitals, prescription drugs and other medical procedures. It's the most innovative proposal currently on the table, and the potential savings for consumers, the government and the health care industry are staggering. But "individual responsibility" and "market forces" don't resonate with a Democratic Congress and an electorate that are drifting toward "Hillary Care 2.0." It's no accident that the Gingrich plan has largely gone unnoticed, while the wonks, the media and the politicos lavish attention Mitt Romney's health care proposal, or Arnold Schwarzenegger's recently unveiled "Kalifornia Care."

Gingrich is apparently content to swim against political and social tides, believing that his ideas will eventually prevail, and (perhaps) force the GOP to select him as their candidate next year. But does he really want the nomination? Personally, I tend to agree with those who wonder if Newt actually craves the presidency. One of his allies told Fortune that Gingrich is a "better Moses than David," suggesting that the former speaker is more comfortable in leading his party back to the Promised Land, instead than being in charge when they arrive.

However, that Moses analogy only goes so far. When the Israelites left Egypt, they rejected Moses' leadership (and the word of God), resulting in a 40-year oddysey through the wilderness. Of course, the Israelites eventually entered the land that the Lord promised, but only after the old, rebellious generation had passed away. Many of the Republicans who rebelled against Newt in the mid-1990s are still in the House, and even less likely to embrace radical change than they were a decade ago. If Mr. Gingrich expects his increasingly timid party to draft him--and his big ideas--for an '08 presidential run, he will almost certainly be disappointed.

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