Strange Bedfellow

Newt Lite

Less full of himself, but definitely not great.

Try to remember, if you can for a moment, the old Newt Gingrich. He was a man who liked to talk very grandly, often describing his political program as “renewing American civilization” and replacing what he referred to as “the bureaucratic welfare state” with a new kind of society. The 1994 election that brought him to power was a “revolution” that he cast in terms of Braveheart, a gory movie about freedom fighters in medieval Scotland. Republican traitors knew what to expect. Gingrich blamed liberals for sensational murders and called the Clintons the enemies of “normal Americans.” He drew cosmological charts with himself at the center and got very fat.

The new Newt, by contrast, is a humble fellow. In his book Lessons Learned the Hard Way, he presents himself as shorn of his old harshness and grandiosity, as well as of 30 or 40 pounds. On the cover, he appears in faded jeans, hiking boots, and a leather jacket, smiling as he leans against a post-and-rail fence, bathed in soft filtered sunlight. The few specific proposals he makes are stunning in their modesty. For instance, Gingrich advocates diabetes screening as a way to save Medicare money and thinks it is especially important for Native Americans, who are highly susceptible to the disease, to monitor their blood pressure. He admits to mistakes such as failing to keep his mouth shut at several points, mismanaging the House Republicans, and underestimating his opponents. He describes himself as tolerant of internal dissent, even identifying with the GOP rebels who plotted a coup against him last summer.

Seeing Newt so shrunken is somewhat disheartening. There’s a poignant moment in his mostly very dull book when, as his career is being torn apart by the House Ethics Committee investigation into his college course, he describes visiting one of his favorite places, the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Communing with dinosaurs revives his spirits. In the old days, Newt didn’t need fossils to spur him on. He had the courage of his convictions and of his boorish aggression. Now he comes across like a victim of some Dale Carnegie re-education camp–it’s as if he’s constantly reminding himself of his image-consultant’s lessons in seeming nice. Where the old Newt was a compelling meanie, the new one offers anodyne platitudes and empty uplift. He calls at one point in his book for “a serious conversation about our national future.” At another point he writes of the Republican agenda, “What we have to offer people … is strength and adventure, the experience of a new level of life-enhancing energy, and love of a great country.” This could be anyone talking–Dick Gephardt, Hillary Clinton, or Marianne Williamson.

What happened to transform the raging bull into Caspar Milquetoast? There are various theories. Some think Gingrich has modified his behavior because he is still fighting for survival, trying to appease the House Republicans who plotted to overthrow him and might plot again. I’ve heard others suggest that he is an undiagnosed manic-depressive coming off a three-year spree. Perhaps the most common view is that Newt is merely positioning for 2000, trying to diminish his stratospheric “negatives” in preparation for a presidential run.

N one of these explanations quite cuts it. Whatever his past gaps in judgment, Gingrich is too smart to think he has a realistic chance of being elected president. His unpopularity is deep and indelible. If he does run in the 2000 primaries, it will be as a way of gracefully exiting his job as speaker. (He has to step down in 2002 anyway, according to the rule he set.) In fact, I don’t think Gingrich’s transformation is all that calculated. To be sure, his book is disingenuous at points. He says the coup plot was merely a cry for attention by the GOP freshman class of 1994, not a serious attempt at getting rid of him. That’s ridiculous. And nowhere does he mention one of his biggest mistakes–the $4.5 million book deal. Gingrich returned the advance, but he still wrote (or caused to be written) two books, of which this is the second and more nearly readable. But Gingrich’s arrogance is genuinely diminished. He truly seems a different person.

I think the new personality-modified Newt is mainly the product of his shattering experiences in 1995 and 1996. Gingrich tried to lead a revolution and ended up with his head in the guillotine. In a way, this catastrophe was the result of a misunderstanding. Gingrich was never of the same mind as the radical freshmen. Before the Contract With America, he was not notably anti-government. To the contrary, he thought the GOP had suffered as a result of its foolish opposition to popular federal programs. But Gingrich had a swollen ego. He thought of himself as a world historical figure, so when the election of 1994 gave birth to a movement, he stepped forward to lead it. In fact, it drove him. He was thus the person standing in the intersection when the would-be conservative revolution smashed into the moderate reality of American politics.

Gingrich is now picking himself up off the asphalt. His plan for the future is to stay out of traffic. Beyond that, he proposes the Republican Party support something he calls “entrepreneurial government.” He would let the private sector act wherever possible and get the government to act more like a business. This is probably what Republicans would advocate if they were smart. Entrepreneurial government is compatible with tax cuts and does not demand an assault on purposes and programs that the voting majority regards as essential. It is a politics with great potential appeal to an electorate increasingly dominated by an independent, stock-owning middle class. This kind of politics does not alienate women. If the GOP could adopt it as a general approach while distancing itself from aggressive social conservatism, Democrats would have reason to fear at the presidential as well as the congressional level.

But Newt’s entrepreneurial idea, which stresses flexibility and innovation in how government discharges its role, contradicts the libertarian urge to have government simply butt out. And Gingrich still wants to have it both ways–or at least to make the class of ‘94 think he does. According to his numbers, government at all levels currently consumes about 38 percent of personal income. Gingrich proposes reducing it to just 25 percent. If you subtract the 16 percent that goes to state and local spending, that means the federal government would defend the country, pay for electricity to light the Capitol dome, and do not much else. But that’s not all Gingrich intends to have it do. He wants to “protect” Medicare, dole out hundreds of billions in highway subsidies, and fund research into diseases that affect Republicans.

Here Newt Lite has something in common with Newt Heavy. His interesting ideas don’t quite add up.