ATHENS, Ga. – More than a decade after he stepped down as speaker of the House into what seemed like almost certain political oblivion, Newt Gingrich is back and seemingly more relevant than ever.
Gingrich seems to be everywhere these days, headlining an endless circuit of GOP dinners, popping up on TV news shows, authoring yet another best-selling book and acting as a policy guru to out-of-power congressional Republicans on how to do battle with the Democratic White House.
As beleaguered Republicans look for a standard bearer after last year’s disastrous election, they’ve been tossing around the names of flashy new stars like Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice presidential candidate, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, young and Indian-American in a party that’s increasingly identified with older white men.
But could the GOP’s savior instead be a wonkish, twice-divorced throwback to the fiercely partisan Republican revolution?
Gingrich has managed to keep himself in the public eye since leaving the House, but the blitz of public appearances in recent months is reminiscent of the run-up to 2007, when he toyed with a presidential run only to abandon it before the primaries began. Now, some are speculating that the former congressman from Georgia is laying the groundwork for a White House bid in 2012.
Grover Norquist, a prominent conservative and president of Americans for Tax Reform, said Gingrich is on nearly every Republican short list of possible White House prospects.
“One of the ways you judge these guys is how hard they’re working, and Newt is out there hustling,” Norquist said.
Gingrich does not exactly discourage such presidential speculation. Instead he argues he is busy with work for a pair of think tanks – American Solutions and the Center for Health Transformation – that give him a platform to speak on a dizzying array of issues: from childhood obesity and nuclear weapons in North Korea to offshore oil exploration.
“I really love trying to solve problems. I get very excited about it,” Gingrich, 65, said after teaching a law school class recently at the University of Georgia.
With Gingrich, a former college history professor, the ideas sometimes come so fast and furious that even supporters say they can feel overwhelmed by a conversation with him.
Rich Galen, a Washington-based Republican strategist and former Gingrich aide, called him the GOP’s “intellect-in-chief.”
“He’s always been the idea man,” Galen said.
If Gingrich has his way, those ideas will spawn a movement, something akin to what Barack Obama found himself leading in 2008 as he ran to replace President Bush. There are no signs that Gingrich has such a movement building yet. But some point to his history of rallying the Republican revolt in the mid 1990s.
“Gingrich alone, of all the guys who may be running, brings a history of being a movement and party builder,” Norquist said.
That movement ultimately imploded and Gingrich resigned following heavy GOP losses in the 1998 midterm elections. But Norquist and others said he is smart enough to have learned from that stinging defeat.
Gingrich showed he still had his finger on the pulse of his party when — amid soaring gas prices — he helped popularize the phrase “drill here, drill now” that was adopted as a mantra on the 2008 GOP campaign trail.
He’s taken on an unofficial role counseling congressional Republicans and is credited with helping rally opposition in the party to President Bush’s bailout plan for financial institutions last fall. For conservative Republicans fed up with what they saw as out-of-control federal spending and meddling in the private sector, it was a sign the GOP was rediscovering its values.
Gingrich is in frequent contact with Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the second-ranking Republican in the House. He’s been all over the web promoting anti-tax “tea parties” set to take place around the country on April 15.
And in a telling signal of his influence, Gingrich has been tapped to headline the GOP’s House-Senate marquee fundraising dinner in June, replacing Palin. She had been scheduled to appear but then said she couldn’t commit until the Alaska legislature wrapped up its business.
Still, Gingrich has a reputation as an angry partisan crusader who delighted in firebombing Democrats with vicious verbal assaults. He was labeled a hypocrite when it was revealed he was carrying on an extramarital affair with a Capitol Hill aide at the same time he was working to impeach President Bill Clinton for lying about his own infidelity.
In those days, his temper was notorious. After complaining about the seating arrangement on Air Force One returning from a state funeral in Israel, Gingrich was famously depicted on the cover of the New York Daily News as a wailing baby in a diaper. He was blamed for shutting down the federal government in a budget dispute.
Some question whether he can reinvent himself and move past those images still seared in the minds of many who lived through the failed Contract with America. To some, Gingrich is viewed as a polarizing figure for a party looking to expand its base.
“I’m skeptical,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University. “I see him more as someone who’s been sticking to an orthodox conservative philosophy than as someone who would broaden the party’s appeal.”
Whether Gingrich will be effective opposing Obama is an open question. He said it’s important for Republicans not just to be seen as the party of “no” but to put forward workable alternatives. He blasted Obama’s $787 billion stimulus plan, which the House GOP went on to oppose unanimously. But he also outlined his own conservative stimulus package, which would slash payroll and business taxes.
And he wastes no opportunity to criticize Obama on virtually any topic. Gingrich has labeled the administration “anti-religious” and criticized via the social networking Web site Twitter the president’s early handling of the Somali pirate crisis.
For Republicans struggling to regain their footing, Gingrich is a battle-tested veteran with experience going head-to-head with a Democratic White House. Republicans flailing to find a message have turned to Gingrich for help.
“When you are the party in the wilderness you turn to an intellectual leader of the party, like Newt, to get you out,” GOP pollster Whit Ayers said. “He’s clearly playing a key role in revitalizing the Republican Party.”
Gingrich describes his role this way: “I’m a citizen leader who’s also a Republican.”
Asked whether he will make the transition from citizen to candidate, Gingrich gives an impish grin.
“We’ll see,” he said.
Shannon McCaffrey is a reporter for The Associated Press.
On the Net:
Newt Gingrich, www.newt.org