Newt Gingrich, who is considering a bid for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, says his party’s biggest mistake is thinking that the way to a lasting majority is to emphasize its conservative voter base.
Polls show the former House speaker trailing Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani among Republican voters nationwide, but well ahead of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Republicans seeking a strong conservative challenger to Mr. McCain are urging Mr. Gingrich to run.
Mr. Gingrich is still popular among Republican loyalists, although some say his bruising battles with the Clinton administration in the 1990s have damaged his presidential prospects.
At age 63, the Georgia Republican continues to look to the future. He was asked in an interview with The Washington Times last week about his most important contribution to the conservative movement. He replied: “It is a long way from being done, so I don’t know that I can answer that.”
Mr. Gingrich blames a flawed strategy for Republicans’ loss of a congressional majority that Mr. Gingrich was credited with winning in 1994. He said his party can still build a durable governing majority, but first must abandon the strategy of Karl Rove, the White House political director who has emphasized direct appeals to the party’s base.
“A base-motivation party inherently, in the long run, drives away the non-base,”Mr. Gingrich said.
The better way, he says, is to define the opposition on specific issues so that the Democrats are exposed as espousing views shared by a small minority of voters.
If in 2004 Republicans had “defined John Kerry on 53 issues” that Mr. Gingrich identified, only 17 out of every 100 voters would have sided with Massachusetts Democrat on those issues, he said.
Mr. Kerry still “would have gotten 40 percent of the total vote because of the ethnic patterns that you can’t break, but he could have become a George McGovern,” the Democrat who lost in a landslide to President Nixon in 1972.
Mr. Nixon’s re-election margin over Mr. McGovern was 23.2 percentage points. Mr. Bush’s 2.5 percentage point margin over Mr. Kerry was the smallest for a victorious incumbent president in U.S. history.
Mr. Gingrich said Republican strategist Lee Atwater helped Vice President George Bush advance to the presidency in 1988 by defining Democratic challenger Michael S. Dukakis as representing a minority of Americans on issues from abortion and flag burning to the death penalty and gun control.
It was Mr. Gingrich’s relentless effort to define Democrats as proprietors of a corrupt welfare state that marked his long march to power. He was hailed as a political genius after the 1994 election that ended 40 years of Democratic control of the House. But after Republicans’ unexpected losses in the 1998 midterm elections, Mr. Gingrich resigned from Congress.
After another devastating midterm election last year, some Republicans have renewed appreciation for Mr. Gingrich’s conservative style. A poll of Republican voters in North Carolina, for instance, shows the former speaker with 29 percent support, compared with 30 percent for Mr. Giuliani, 22 percent for Mr. McCain and 4 percent for Mr. Romney. Mr. Gingrich now talks optimistically about prospects for building a broader Republican base.
“Ronald Reagan understood that arguments should be made where we have huge advantages with virtually all Americans,” Mr. Gingrich said. “He was brilliant at avoiding base-narrowing appeals and emphasizing base-broadening appeals.”
Mr. Gingrich noted polls showing conservative advantages on values issues such as the Pledge of Allegiance — “the right to say ‘one nation under God’ is supported by 91 percent of the American people” — and “overwhelming” opposition to human cloning.