“Comeback kids” are nothing new in American political history — think back no further than Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton — but there may be no more compelling rehabilitation story today than that of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has once again emerged as a rallying force for dispirited Republicans and a font of ideas second to none in his party.
“Newt has made an extraordinary comeback,” said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota who was the Georgia Republican’s closet friend and confidant in the 1980s when the two were GOP backbenchers plotting the improbable end of four decades of Democratic dominance in the House.
“Anybody looking around for ideas and activism and leadership in the Republican Party would put Newt in the top two or three people to turn to,” said Mr. Weber.
Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, another former House colleague of Mr. Gingrich and now the No. 2 Republican in the Senate as minority whip, hails the Georgian as the same “prolific idea generator” he was back in the mid-1980s.
Just turned 66, the one-time history professor retains the signature mop of thick white hair he had when he helped fashion the “Contract With America” and led Republicans to their first House majority in decades in 1994. He was seen by many at the time as the face of the party.
Four years later, he was gone, the victim of tactical miscalculations against President Clinton, ethics woes, rivalries within his own GOP caucus and the historically stunning loss of Republican seats in the 1998 congressional elections. Many assumed his political career was over.
But a re-energized Mr. Gingrich can lay claim to be a leading spokesman for the Republicans, even as the party’s political fortunes have plunged with the loss of Congress in 2006 and the election of Barack Obama in 2008. While some party figures lay low or blame others, Mr. Gingrich, characteristically, prefers to carry the fight to the enemy.
“I would say to [Republican National Committee Chairman] Michael Steele and others, ‘The first duty is, for the next eight months, don’t worry about the message, worry about recruitment.’ A rising tide only lifts the boats that are in the water,” Mr. Gingrich told The Washington Times in an interview late last month.
“Barring some extraordinary change in the economy, we’re going to have a relatively good election in 2010 because high taxes, big government [and] politically corrupt systems don’t lead to economic growth,” he said.
Evidence of Mr. Gingrich’s renewed stature and clout abound.
When, for the first time in nine years, Republicans last month didn’t have an incumbent president to address their gigantic annual House-Senate GOP fundraising gala in Washington, who did the honors? Mr. Gingrich.
The Georgian, famous as a futurist and “early adopter” of technology, regularly bombards Republican House and Senate leaders with tactical and strategic missives. His e-mail newsletter has 860,000 subscribers, and his Twitter musings have attracted more than 500,000 followers.
Although largely out of the political limelight and the Sunday talk-show lineups in the years after his fall, Mr. Gingrich was by no means idle.
He founded the nonprofit American Solutions for Winning the Future, which he describes as a “tri-partisan citizen action network” of more than 1.5 million members. He said the group’s mission is to find the “next generation” of solutions for ensuring that America remains the safest, freest and most prosperous country on the planet.
Aides say he earns a nice living from the six for-profit businesses that he founded, including a consulting firm and a film production company. And he also has found time to pen a string of fiction and nonfiction works, some of which have made the best-seller list.
He now gives 300 speeches a year — most free of charge but some that command up to $80,000. He has a contract to appear on Fox News twice a week and does other TV appearances about twice a month — plus about 200 radio appearances a year.
Mr. Gingrich is even a wanted commodity with Democrats on occasion. Last year, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, sought out Mr. Gingrich to collaborate on health care reforms.
In 2007, Mr. Gingrich attracted national attention with hints of a possible presidential nomination run, but gave it up by fall of that year when he concluded that the campaign election law would force him to give up American Solutions if he became a candidate.
“Newt decided on the morning of Sept. 9, 2007, not to run,” says Atlanta attorney Randy Evans, an adviser and close personal friend. “He believed that the future and success of the movement as initiated by American Solutions was more important than personal political successes.”
Some, including a few of Mr. Gingrich’s friends, think he never seriously intended to run in 2008. Others say the planets — or more important, the polls — weren’t favorably aligned.
An April 2007 poll showed Mr. Gingrich scoring relatively well among Republicans, but facing a 51 percent disapproval rating among independents.
“We saw those numbers pretty much holding up through the summer,” said Mr. McLaughlin, who was working for another GOP candidate.
Despite his years out of office, Mr. Gingrich remains a riveting, fluent speaker, a mainstay of the Republican rubber chicken circuit who is comfortable speaking on a broad range of domestic and foreign policy issues.
His friends back in Washington agree he’s back and he’s ready — they’re not sure for what.
Mr. Weber said it is not clear Mr. Gingrich is the obvious candidate to be party standard-bearer going forward, despite his friend’s increased prominence and popularity among the party faithful.
“Does that lead to the conclusion that he should be a candidate for 2012? We are a long way from that,” Mr. Weber said.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the party’s first choice as keynote speaker for the congressional fundraiser Mr. Gingrich addressed last month, is said to electrify the Republican base, but Mr. Gingrich stands up well to her in a recent poll of potential GOP candidates for the White House in 2012.
A Public Policy Polling survey conducted June 12 to 16 found Mr. Gingrich losing against President Obama 49 percent to 41 percent; but Mrs. Palin lost by an even bigger margin — 52 percent to 40 percent.
Some Democratic strategists say Mr. Gingrich remains a polarizing figure, the result of both his stormy tenure as House speaker and an almost endless file of provocative utterances on dozens of policy issues over the years. But Mr. Weber argued his friend’s willingness to take a stand and think creatively will not undermine him with voters.
“I don’t agree with those who argue Newt is a flawed messenger because of the high negatives he has in approval surveys,” said Mr. Weber. “Margaret Thatcher said something to the effect that before you can win the election, you have to win the argument. That’s what Newt does for us. Whenever Newt bears in an on argument, he wins it.”
“Nobody is better than Newt Gingrich when it comes to synthesizing policies and winning the argument,” he added.
A new majority
In his interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Gingrich sketched out a vision for conservatives and Republicans to block what he considers the Obama-Democratic march to socialism by thinking outside the party-label box. That includes building a center-right majority in Congress and the state legislatures — regardless of party identification — even if that means the heretical idea of Republicans actively promoting and backing conservative Democratic candidates in selected races where a GOP candidate would have little chance of winning.
“I would urge conservatives in California to find a Democrat to run in every Assembly and Senate seat in California that can’t be contested by Republicans, and then to run a Republican in every seat they could possibly win, and then have an overt goal of creating a bipartisan conservative coalition,” Mr. Gingrich argues. “I’d do the same thing nationally.”
Mr. Gingrich also faces hurdles dealing with his own party’s evangelical Christian conservative wing.
In 2008, the thrice-married Mr. Gingrich went on Christian leader Dr. James Dobson’s radio show to confess he had cheated on his second wife around the time he was helping impeach President Clinton. Mr. Gingrich noted that Republicans impeached the president not because of the Monica Lewinsky affair but because he had lied about it.
This year, he converted to Catholicism, the religion of his wife, Callista Bisek. She is president of the Gingrich movie company, which produced “Rediscovering God in America” and “Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny.” A new release, due out this fall, recounts Pope John Paul II’s momentous nine-day visit to Poland in 1979.
On foreign policy, Mr. Gingrich’s views are hawkishly neoconservative. He supported the invasion of Iraq, but criticized the George W. Bush administration’s handling of the postwar occupation.
The Georgian has repeatedly and pointedly refused to rule out a presidential run in 2012, eyeing a crowded field with no prohibitive favorite and with a couple of fellow dark horses — South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford and Sen. John Ensign — already scratched because of marital woes.
Whether he makes the run or not, Mr. Gingrich said Republicans have to be open to new ideas and new converts if the party is to rebound. Being a majority, he argued, means building a coalition in which the members may not agree with each other on every point.
He said, “As Reagan would have told them, ‘You can be a majority, in which case you’re going to have arguments inside the room, or you can stay a minority. But what you can’t do is have a majority that’s only people you understand and agree with.’”