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Newt Gingrich on the Direction of the GOP

By Ryan Sager

This month Ryan Sager's new book, The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party, hits bookstore shelves. Below is an interview excerpted from the book that Sager conducted with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Gingrich became Speaker after the Republicans took over Congress in 1994. He remained in that position until resigning the House in 1998. Currently, Gingrich is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. He sat down with Sager in March of 2006 to discuss the future of the Republican Party.

(Responses are verbatim, though condensed for the sake of brevity.)

Sager: What's your general view of the current state of the relationship between social conservatives and libertarians within the Republican Party?

Gingrich: I think the Republican brand is in trouble. People forgot why they were doing what they were doing. There's sort of a performance minimum, and if you don't meet it, you're in trouble. There's a degree to which it's almost like watching recessions in industries. You now have a Republican Party in danger of being in a recession. The party is confused as to its identity. And I don't see a very large market for a pro-pork, centrist Republican Party. You're caught in a muddle that is one part incumbentitis, one part lacking an understanding of venture investments in politics, and one part intellectual shallowness. The real breakthroughs we need require a level of intellectual depth that is not one of the strengths of the Republican Party.

You say the Republican brand is in trouble. One man has been managing it for five years. Is this George W. Bush's fault?

It's the collective leadership of the party's fault. I'm uninterested in who's to blame. I'll let you worry about that. The degree to which committee chairmen are dominated by incumbentitis is not George W. Bush's fault. The degree to which 9/11 changed things was also not his fault. I'm very blunt about the fact that I think this party's in severe danger of losing both the White House and the Congress. Interestingly, McCain, who's the most iconoclastic Republican, is also the one who currently runs best.

Can John McCain win a Republican primary, despite his sponsorship of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-regulation bill and despite his differences with social conservatives?

It depends. You have to say that as of today, he is sort of where Dole was in '95. The Republican Party often gets a sense of exhausted acceptance and decides, oh yeah, you've earned it. And McCain's doing everything he can to earn it. I mean, he's very methodically out there. And my sense is he's not that much of a social liberal. He has a running brawl with the right-to-life folks. But, beyond that, he's a pretty Arizona type.

Can Democrats compete in the West?

The challenge for Republicans is to appeal to younger African Americans and younger Hispanics. The challenge for Democrats is to be good enough on God and guns that they can combine enough traditional independent voters in rural regions with a new, emerging Hispanic Democratic Party. Can they pull that off? How does the party of Vermont and San Francisco reach out over time? You can do it race by race. Whether or not you can do it as a party, I don't know.

Were Republicans shell shocked by what they saw as defeat in the 1990s?

The answer's "yes," but I've never understood it. We were the first Republican majority in 40 years, we were the first reelected Republican majority in 68 years, but people were so shaken. In my view we were winning. Welfare reform, we won. Tax cuts, we won. Balanced budget, we won. I would have thought it was a time for great celebration, but you could tell people were shell shocked.

Back to George W. Bush, has the No Child Left Behind Act furthered the cause of conservative education reform?

The jury's out. Modern, bureaucratic, unionized education is a form of intellectual child abuse. We ought to tackle it at that level. In a lot of directions, the administration's heart is in the right place, but it doesn't think through the implications of its values. They keep trying to find a way to improve the failure as opposed to finding a way to invent the alternative.

Is the Republican Party out of ideas?

That's what we're looking for now. We're looking for a next cycle of intellectual politics. I don't mean this in an abstract, French university sense. I mean this in the sense of what are the key ideas that underpin where we are going, and how do we make them understandable to the average person, and how do we make them popular. And that's the heart of where we have to go to in the next phase.

How far has Bush brought the Republican Party toward being a "governing party"?

Not very. And it's because the most important characteristic of a governing party is that you set the agenda and you win the argument. If you can't win the argument, you can't sustain the agenda. And if you're not setting the agenda, then random chance and your opponents are setting the agenda. I have a very mixed emotion about the Bush presidency. I think the president, on almost every big decision, has been essentially right. He has really had the moral courage to rise to some huge decisions. But he has not had the drive and the understanding to force the level of change those decisions imply. So we don't today have and information campaign capable of matching up with the Danish cartoon offensive. We don't today have a clear understanding of urban warfare and policing capable of dominating Hamas or Hezbollah or the anti-Iraqi forces in Iraq. I think his big decisions are right, but I think his ability to understand how difficult and how complicated follow through is is a major limitation.

Is Bush a big-government conservative?

I guess. I'd ask the White House. I mean, he's certainly an expensive-government conservative.

Are you running for president?

I don't know yet, I'll decide in 07.

Ryan Sager (rhsager.com) is author of “The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party.”

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