Newt Gingrich’s ‘Big Ideas’ Campaign Lumbers Toward a Small End

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Haraz N. Ghanbari / AP

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich speaks at Georgetown University, March 28, 2012, in Washington.

The new Newt Gingrich slipped into Washington with little fanfare. As his campaign downgrades from long shot to longer shot, the happy-go-lucky Speaker who slogged cheerfully through a series of defeats is finally letting his frustration show. Gingrich’s speech at Georgetown University on Wednesday evening sounded like a valedictory for a vanishing campaign. The boasts and bluster were gone. The tone was wistful. Even the adverbs — frankly, fundamentally — had dwindled away. 

Gingrich’s appearance in D.C. was a halfhearted bid for the 19 delegates the district will award next week, but even he knows a victory wouldn’t matter. At this point, the Washington Generals have a better winning percentage than the Gingrich campaign. This week it announced it will downsize its operation, shedding staff to focus on making personal appeals to unbound delegates. Gingrich still intends to show up in Tampa, clinging to the fleeting hope that a floor flight could deliver him the nomination. The question is why. The campaign, with just two wins this cycle, is weighed down by a debt load bigger than its bank account. Sugar daddy Sheldon Adelson has closed his wallet, forcing the cash-strapped Speaker to resort to charging $50 for photos. A CNN poll found 60% of Republicans want Gingrich out of the race. His determination to stay in could cost him what’s left of his reputation.

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Gingrich’s stop at Georgetown, his only public event of the day, was initially billed as a rally. A few hours before it started, the campaign said he would instead deliver a speech on private Social Security accounts. Speaking to a silent crowd in an ornate lecture hall adorned with religious imagery, Gingrich careened between his favorite topics: the ingenuity of the America we’ve lost; the audacity of the judicial branch (which that day had mulled junking a major law, to Gingrich’s incongruous delight); the self-satisfied sclerosis of the nation’s ruling class. “The greatest frustration I’ve had since leaving the speakership is the denseness of Washington in accepting new ideas,” he said. He only steered the speech to Social Security in its final few minutes.

Big, bold, new ideas: this is what Gingrich likes to imagine his campaign is about. Such as the option of private Social Security accounts, an idea that George W. Bush floated (with abysmal results) and which Herman Cain trumpeted last year. Or enlisting poor kids to work as janitors. During the Q&A portion following his speech, a former high school janitor named Hector Cendejas offered a perspective on the plan rooted in personal experience. “For me, it was embarrassing to be a janitor at my own high school,” he said. “I did not feel empowered by serving my classmates.”

Gingrich sparred politely with Cendejas, but during the ensuing questions, his frustration seeped out. When a student from Spain questioned the wisdom of the U.S. spending huge sums on defense instead of universal health care, Gingrich shot back: “You know the No. 1 reason we spend so much on national defense? Because you don’t.” He groused about the difficulty of getting people to buy into his vision. “We are surrounded by a news media that is cynical and by consultants who are cynical, by lobbyists who are cynical … they think having big ideas is silly,” he said. “This is why I’m running. I haven’t done a very good job as a candidate because it is so difficult to communicate big solutions in this country. And the entrenched structure of the system is so hostile to it.”

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Peter Ferrara, Gingrich’s economic policy guru, is part of the coterie of advisers still with the campaign, which may owe partly to the fact that he’s working pro bono. “I see his frustration. I share his frustration,” Ferrara says. “When was the last TIME magazine article about personal accounts in Chile? In Galveston, Texas? … We have a system that is not working very well to discuss new, fresh ideas.”

And yet Gingrich himself did not spend much time Wednesday talking about his new, fresh Social Security plan (which, as it happens, like most of his economic platform, is neither particularly new nor fresh). In recent days, Gingrich has made waves mostly for criticizing President Barack Obama’s comments about Trayvon Martin (“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”) as “disgraceful,” and suggesting suspicions about Obama’s purported Muslim sympathies are warranted by the President’s behavior.

These aren’t big ideas. They are coded statements designed to validate supporters’ fears. But even as his campaign crawls to an ignominious end, Gingrich retains plenty of fans who have bought into his world-historical rhetoric. One student used his time at the mike to gush about Gingrich’s greatness; when the grumbles of the crowd signaled that it was time to ask a question or step aside, he blurted: “Why aren’t politicians more like you?”

The crowd broke into laughter, and Gingrich smiled. “That’s a good question,” he said.

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