The last time Newt Gingrich attended the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa, he brought with him his traveling side show of policy lecturers. With workshops titled “Green Conservatism & Biodiversity,” “Finding a Cure for Alzheimer’s” and “A 21st Century Social Security System for Young Americans,” his team didn’t exactly steal the show. But Gingrich wasn’t running for President back then. He was aspiring to be something like the Republican thinker-in-chief.
Now he wants to be President, with plans to announce his candidacy on Wednesday via Facebook and Twitter before sitting down with his former Fox News colleague Sean Hannity in the evening. But it is not yet clear if his professorial approach to politics will spark any excitement. Candidates, after all, cannot just be teachers. They must be listeners. They must connect. For more than a decade, Gingrich’s relationship to GOP voters has been essentially didactic. Now he needs to make his lectures into conversations.
So far this year, after months of active campaigning without an official campaign, there is little indication that Gingrich has adjusted his approach, and the polls have not exactly been kind. Though his name ID remains higher than many in the field–84 percent of Republican voters hold an opinion of him, according to Quinnipiac–his position in the GOP field has eroded slightly in most polls over the last several months, to the high single digits nationwide. Every now and then he throws out a red meat line, but more often than not, he presents himself like someone who has read (and written) more books than his audiences. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, he offered plenty of Obama bashing, but he couldn’t keep himself from his old ways. “My favorite political, governing slogan for the next twenty years is 2+2=4,” he said, delivering a line that hardly got any applause. “Simple, basic, honest, facts.” His points seemed to be twofold: Other politicians didn’t care about reality and he knew more than everyone else.
A few weeks later, at a cattle call in Iowa, Gingrich continued the same smarter-than-you-are tone. Here is just one Gingrich riff from Steve King’s Conservative Principals Conference.
If you want to balance this federal budget, the number one thing you can do is get the economy growing so fast that you are back down to 4% unemployment. That additional 6.5% of people going back to work–because the true unemployment rate is about 10.5 if you count folks who are looking–if you have all 6.5% of the American people back to work, so they weren’t getting food stamps, they weren’t getting unemployment, they weren’t getting Medicaid, they actually had a job and were paying taxes–the difference in spending and revenue in that one fact is the number one step back to a balanced budget.
There is almost nothing provocative about this claim. Every economist, on the left and the right, would agree with him. But the delivery is notable for how little it sounds like campaign rhetoric. This is the rhetoric of the academy, filled with too many numbers and basic remedial facts about how the economy works. It is also classic Gingrich. He speaks as if the rest of the nation’s leaders were high school sophomores who have failed to do their homework.
These are not isolated incidents. “I believe in some ways, this election, and the conversation around this election, may be as central to our future as the conversations in the 1850s that led to the election of Lincoln in 1860,” he said at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition meeting in March, sounding every bit the history teacher. (Even one of his recent book titles is burdened by academic jargon: “To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine.”) The last major public address Gingrich delivered was an April 22 event at the Brookings Institution, for a panel on Health Care Costs and Biomedical Innovation. His overarching theme seemed to be that other people do not think with the same visionary acumen of Newt Gingrich. He spoke about getting “to the right scale of thinking.” He said he wanted to move beyond “the current paradigm,” and the “stupidity of current policy.” He mentioned that he has done “two conference calls with regenerative medical specialists.” “You would think a serious country, with serious leaders,” he said at the beginning of one riff on health care costs. “There’s no serious conversation,” he concluded. “If we are determined to be willfully stupid, we can be.” So what is his solution for health care? A new paper that lays out a “new model” of dealing with health care delivery.
Gingrich’s seven steps for a new healthcare system, which include more government investment in basic science and a retooling of the Food and Drug Administration, have much in common with the projections put forward by Silicon Valley futurists. These are not solutions to the health care crises as it currently exists. They are the postulations of a dreamer.
In recent years, with his wife Callista, Gingrich has sought new ways to teach the conservative masses. In a series of documentaries for the conservative advocacy group Citizens United, Newt and Callista appeared like hosts of their own PBS-style specials, except stiffer and a little more mutually admiring on screen.
Indeed, Gingrich’s vast educational infrastructure has the potential to be leveraged for his campaign, though campaign finance laws will make it somewhat complicated. In recent years, he has built up a major non-profit, American Solutions for Winning the Future; a think-tank called Renewing American Leadership; a for-profit health care advisory company, The Center for Health Transformation; and a web publication, called the Americano, which is aimed at conservative Latinos. American Solutions alone boasts an e-mail list with more than 1 million subscribers, though campaign finance law will not allow Gingrich to use the list for free once the campaign begins.
Gingrich has already benefited from the groups’ swollen coffers, which are funded largely with five- and six-figure donations that could not given to a presidential campaign. American Solutions picks up his tab for travel around the country. Gingrich was also able to funnel some of his money into a recent Iowa campaign to oust state Supreme Court judges who had supported gay marriage, a move that ingratiated Gingrich with social conservatives there.
But all these advantages may not matter much if he shows up this August in Iowa at the Ames Straw Poll with another set of policy lectures. By the time he climbs the stage, he will need to have demonstrated not just that he can teach people something, but that people can believe in him.