The latest sign that Newt Gingrich isn’t going to stay humble as his poll numbers rise: the former House speaker was in New York, a bastion of East Coast liberalism, on Monday, promising to compete in the super-blue state, unabashedly courting Donald Trump, promoting his widely criticized child-labor proposal, and gleefully taking shots at everyone from Mitt Romney to Nancy Pelosi.
It was a whirlwind day for Gingrich, whose standing is soaring—most lately with polls showing he has an 8-point lead in Iowa (PDF) and as much as a 21-point lead nationwide. He started things off with a meeting with Trump—who’s set to moderate a GOP debate on Dec. 27 and has promised to endorse a candidate soon—before heading to the dowdy Union League Club for a press conference.
As has frequently been the case with Gingrich’s campaign, the underlying strategy is opaque at best. Why court Trump, who is unlikely to have much sway with Republican primary voters? Why even come to New York, which hasn’t voted for a Republican since 1984? But the Georgian was clearly having fun, dispensing zingers at Romney, Pelosi, President Obama, and even one unfortunate reporter.
The prospect of a spat with Pelosi had Gingrich fired up. In an interview published Monday, the House minority leader said a Gingrich nomination would be a boon to Democrats. “One of these days we’ll have a conversation about Newt Gingrich,” she said. “I know a lot about him. I served on the investigative committee that investigated him, four of us locked in a room in an undisclosed location for a year. A thousand pages of his stuff.” In 1997, Gingrich became the first House speaker in history to be disciplined for ethics violations.
He was in fighting form at the Union League Club. “I want to thank Speaker Pelosi for what I regard as an early Christmas gift,” he quipped, adding that releasing any details from confidential hearings would be a violation of House rules. Pelosi’s spokesman later tweeted that she was referring only to material already in the public record. The two haven’t always been so combative. Gingrich’s opponents, including Rep. Ron Paul, have pointed to a public-service announcement Gingrich and Pelosi made calling for action on climate change.
It wasn’t the only issue on which Gingrich found himself on the defensive Monday. Reprising a suggestion he made several weeks ago, he and Trump discussed ways to put teenagers to work, perhaps performing janitorial and other tasks at school. Gingrich recommended a version of Trump’s hit show The Apprentice for poor New York children. “I thought it was a great idea,” Trump said. “We’re going to be picking 10 young wonderful children and make them ‘apprenti.’ We’re going to have a little fun with it.”
Discussing the idea later, Gingrich said that too many children in “urban areas” don’t have an “experience of work.” “If you look at the largest urban housing projects, you’ll find a remarkably large number of people with no work experience,” he said. Asked whether it might be unwise to push poor children into working, given high dropout rates among inner-city black and Hispanic students, he said part-time jobs at school could be an incentive for students to remain in school, but offered no details on how many hours he felt would be appropriate or what rules might govern underage labor. He did, however, conduct a straw poll on the assembled press, asking how many of them had earned money—from babysitting, lawn mowing, and the like—before age 10.
Elsewhere in his freewheeling but brief press conference, Gingrich once again described Obama as “the most effective food-stamp president in history.” But he was even harsher on Romney. Clearly, Gingrich is a career politician; is Romney? “It’s fair to say I’ve been a successful candidate a number of times,” he said with a smirk, adding that he’d let pundits decide whether running for U.S. Senate, Massachusetts governor, “and president for six years” qualified.
And then, just as suddenly as he’d started, Gingrich was finished. Outside the Union League Club—a lavishly oak-paneled bastion, complete with thick curtains, musty leather-bound books, and even a lock of John Brown’s hair—a dozen or so protesters affiliated with Occupy Wall Street chanted and wielded signs with slogans like “Newt is a dirty corporate lobbyist.” As he emerged and entered a waiting SUV, Gingrich—of course—remained unperturbed.