Gingrich: Once More Into the Fray
With a new book, a regular television gig and some well-timed presidential campaign speculation, Newt Gingrich is trying to prove that there can be second acts in a former Speaker’s life.
In the six years since he was forced to leave the Speakership for ethical and electoral shortcomings, the polymathic Georgia Republican has kept himself busy by thinking — about Medicare, Social Security, defense policy, the State Department, mystery novels, Civil War history and scores of other topics.
Lately, though, Gingrich has been thinking a lot more about politics and, apparently, about how he can migrate from the policy world back into the political world.
“I think it was all kind of planned,” said Jack Howard, a former Gingrich aide who now serves as president of the lobbying firm Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates. “I think he took a step back and did a lot of thinking on his own. … He took kind of a time-out and did a lot of soul-searching, and now he’s starting to re-emerge.”
Last week there was a spate of speculation — timed to coincide with the release of Gingrich’s latest book, “Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract With America” — that Gingrich might be considering a White House run in 2008.
The speculation was sparked by an interview Gingrich gave to The Associated Press in which he answered a question about his presidential aspirations by saying, “Anything is possible.”
The story also cited “Republicans close to Gingrich” as saying that he “privately has mused” about a White House bid.
Regardless of whether Gingrich is seriously contemplating such a campaign, he has made clear that he has a lot to say about Social Security, Iraq and a host of other front-burner issues.
His official Web site — newt.org — touts his new book by asking, “Can America survive the manifold dangers of terrorism, activist judges, global economic challenges, and cultural and historical ignorance in the twenty-first century? Yes, says Newt Gingrich.”
Gingrich has made his views known through a series of speeches and his perch as a regular pundit on Fox News Channel. But he has also gone out of his way to stay in touch with his former colleagues in the House.
Gingrich still occasionally calls to talk strategy with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Reynolds (N.Y.).
He also sends memos and e-mails to the NRCC and other leadership offices, and a few Republican Members actually walk around with copies of Gingrich-authored political aphorisms in their pockets.
“He’s a prolific e-mailer,” said Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler. “He does make a lot of calls … to people offering advice.”
Earlier this month, Gingrich visited Scottsdale, Ariz., to address a reunion of members of the historic House GOP class of 1994.
“His theme was that the Republican Party has arrived with this past election at the beginning of becoming a stable governing majority,” said Tyler. “If the communications plan for Social Security goes sour, we could lose the House in ’06. That is a real possibility.”
That appearance, along with Gingrich’s other recent outreach efforts, have served to remind his former colleagues that, at 61 years old, their former leader has plenty of time to mount a political comeback if he wishes.
“At the end of his time as Speaker I said, ‘Look, history is replete with examples of people leaving the stage or leaving public office and returning at a later time,’” said Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), who hosted the class reunion in his district.
Yet his re-emergence has also served to remind some House Republicans of how unpopular Gingrich was when he left office, despite all of his strategic abilities.
Gingrich, always a lightning rod for controversy, was forced to step down as Speaker after the GOP lost seats in 1998. His stock dropped further when he divorced his wife of 18 years to marry Calista Bisek, a House aide with whom he had carried on an extramarital affair for several years.
“I can’t speak to whether he could win a national election, but he certainly couldn’t win a leadership election,” said a House Republican leadership aide.
While Gingrich has succeeded in keeping up relationships on the Hill, he has struggled to maintain his political ties back in Georgia, where he represented the state’s 6th district for two decades in the House.
Gingrich, the son of a non-commissioned Army officer and self-described military brat, has never been widely embraced as a native son of the Peach State. Still, he is credited with being one of the founding fathers of the state’s modern Republican Party, which in the space of two election cycles has all but eliminated the Democratic Party as a viable force in the state.
But at the same time his clout in Georgia may be waning. In the 2004 cycle, when Gingrich took an active role in the GOP primaries to fill seats vacated by then-Reps. Johnny Isakson and Mac Collins, both candidates he backed fell short.
In Isakson’s former 6th district, Gingrich endorsed state Sen. Robert Lamutt (R), who eventually lost a runoff to Tom Price (R). Price easily won the general election.
Gingrich’s involvement in the open 8th district seat was even more controversial.
In the race to succeed Collins, Gingrich endorsed Dylan Glenn (R), a former Bush administration appointee and aide to Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) who was black and in his thirties. Glenn was also backed by other national Republicans including ex-Reps. Jack Kemp (N.Y.) and J.C. Watts (Okla.).
In a heated runoff, Glenn lost to Lynn Westmoreland (R), a former state House Minority Leader who had the backing of Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and four of the delegation’s GOP members. Like Price, Westmoreland also won easily in November.
Shortly before the runoff, Westmoreland’s campaign released to the press an e-mail conversation between Gingrich and Westmoreland’s wife, who had accused Gingrich of betraying the support that she and her husband had shown him since the 1970s.
After insisting publicly that race was not a factor in his decision to back Glenn, Gingrich’s private response to Joan Westmoreland revealed otherwise.
“The only way as a party leader who has spent 44 years trying to build a majority party that I can strengthen us in our area of greatest weakness is to try to help Dylan Glenn,” he wrote.
“It would be a reflection on the historic challenge we face and the degree to which our cause and our party are weakened by our inability to have representation from every aspect of America,” Gingrich added, referring to Glenn’s election.
Gingrich once represented a sizeable portion of what is now Westmoreland’s 8th district. After the 1990 reapportionment and redistricting, Gingrich moved in order to run in the new 6th district, a safe GOP seat that did not include any of his old 6th district territory.
“I can’t speak of course for all of Georgia, but a lot of people in this area felt like he kind of abandoned us to go to a safer district so he could do more on the national level and not have to worry so much about his home constituency,” Westmoreland said in an interview Friday.
The freshman Congressman argued that Gingrich’s endorsement of Glenn in some ways was self-defeating, fueling support for Westmoreland.
“When he came out and endorsed my opponent in the primary … I had two people that had previous been big supporters of Newt’s at my office at 9 o’clock in the morning with checks,” he recalled. “It was a great fundraiser for me. It was a great motivator.”
Westmoreland isn’t giving too much credence to the speculation that Gingrich might seek the White House.
“Personally, I don’t think Newt would run for president. But that’s just my opinion. I think he’s just enjoying the fact that he’s getting some good press out of it, and will go on about his business,” Westmoreland said. “I mean he’s got a real good life right now. He’s got him a new wife. He’s got him some great books out there that I know people are reading.”
But if Gingrich does run in 2008, Westmoreland said he sees the former Speaker having a hard time running from Georgia.
“He’s certainly not a native Georgian,” Westmoreland said. “And I doubt seriously that he would run as a favorite son of Georgia since he’s spent most of his time in D.C.”