It's almost always a joy listening to Gingrich when he's on a tear. And he's almost always on a tear of some sort. I caught up with Newt as he wandered around New Hampshire last week, which is what people who think they're running for President do. Please, God, no, you say. Not that angry guy again. "He's probably carrying too much baggage to be President," said Peter Bergin, a Republican state representative from Amherst, N.H. "But he sure is a terrific idea man. He needs to be part of the debate."
Absolutely. We might even create a new federal position to accommodate him, sort of like party ideologist in the old Soviet Union, except that the U.S. job would be the opposite of what it was in the U.S.S.R. Instead of imposing orthodoxy, the party idea-ologistideology is so un-Americanwould propose unorthodoxy. Gingrich was certainly wild with ideas last week, flicking them off at warp speed, like a dog shaking himself clean after romping through a pond.
Some of the ideas, like the need to create a "rhio wiki" (it has something to do with sharing health-care information on the Internet), would take several columns to explain. Others were plain and clean and smart: Why not create a guest-worker program for immigrants in which 10% of their wages would be placed in an investment account that could be accessed only when they returned to their home country? Why not have bipartisan candidate events in the early presidential primary states? "If Republicans just talk to other Republicans, there's a tendency to get so ugly about the other side that we go overboard. Same with Democrats," Gingrich said at Franklin Pierce College. "You get campaigns that are just noise. But if you have to stand next to each other onstage, you tend to be more civil. There's a better chance of having a real dialogue."
Now, Newt Gingrich is not a public figure who has often been associated with civility. His angry hyperpartisan rantings defined him during the period before he led the "Republican revolution" of 1994 and during his four years as Speaker of the House. But there was always another side to Newt. He was an intellectually honest policy wonk with an appetite for taking on the most important issues facing societypoverty, education, health care, national security, the environment. His solutions were inevitably market-based and conservative, but the very fact that he was devoting so much of his time to issues like reform of the Washington school system was quite annoying to his House g.o.p. colleagues, especially those from the God-and-Mammon wing of the party, like Tom DeLay. There were several coup attempts, with DeLay as a key player, before Gingrich, under fire, resigned as Speaker when the Democrats gained seats in the 1998 elections. He doesn't disguise his disdain for the current Republican leaders in the House. "They stopped being reformers," he says, "and reverted to being normal pols." He's also critical of the President, who "acted as if we had a parliamentary system and he had to accept every piece of legislation the Congress sent his way. He should have been vetoing those pork-laden bills from the start." Gingrich was and remains a strong supporter of the Iraq war but claims to be "mystified" by the Bush Administration's incompetence since Baghdad fell in 2003.
I don't want to say Gingrich has mellowed--the staccato feistiness is still therebut it was surprising how little red meat he served his Republican audiences in New Hampshire. There were few antiliberal tirades. When he talked about Hillary Clinton, it was to praise her support for electronic health-care record keeping. He played to his audiences' antitax prejudices, but there were other, quite striking moments when he refused to pander. Asked about intelligent design, he said, "It's a perfectly fine philosophy, but it has nothing to do with science and shouldn't be taught in science courses." As the man said, Newt may be carrying too much baggage to be President, but wouldn't it be funand a boon for our democracyto have him onstage in the coming debate?