Newt Gingrich is talking to me about landing on the moon.
But he’s not being a space cadet; he is building an argument about how Republicans have to get in touch with reality by conjuring up positive plans. Gingrich believes the GOP made huge mistakes in last year’s campaign—he doesn’t exempt himself—by believing its own propaganda.
“You have a combination of large donors and very clever consultants, neither of whom have any interest in building a healthy party, so they look for nasty ways to have more impact,” Gingrich says. “If it becomes how clever we can be in vilifying Hillary Clinton, that’s a party that will not win in 2016.”
During his ill-fated run for president, Gingrich initially relied on the usual cadre of Beltway consultants. “That was probably the biggest single mistake of my whole campaign, because I didn’t believe my own rhetoric,” he tells me. “I would say ‘this is the campaign I want to run,’ and the hired guns would walk out of the room and say ‘this is what we’re really going to do.’”
With little money, Gingrich fired many of his consultants and later surged in the polls, although “the news media just took me to pieces, particularly Fox. I found that bizarre. These are people I’d been with for years,” as a Fox News contributor.
Gingrich can be his own worst enemy, particularly as a candidate lashing out at targets of opportunity. The former speaker had a decidedly mixed record in running the House in the 1990s. But he seems most comfortable riffing on the future outside the crucible of electoral politics.
Now he’s talking about innovative ways to use scientific research, a theme that has often made him the subject of mockery.
“The greatest frustration of my campaign was not [Mitt] Romney’s money or the dishonesty of the Romney campaign. It was the inability to get the media to take seriously that there could be an alternative politics.”
On future moon missions, for instance, Gingrich contends that private contractors can do the job for 10 to 20 percent of what it would cost the government. “NASA has become the pork barrel of space. Congress is complicit in this,” he says. When he talked about the moon during the primaries, Gingrich grumbles, “nobody wanted to listen” to the rest of his argument.
Soon he is off on a riff about other potential medical and scientific breakthroughs. Taxpayers, he says, spend too much on kidney dialysis, so there should be research into regenerating cells that would enable patients to grow their own kidneys (but congressional budget analysts would have to score the expense over a lifetime rather than focusing on the first year). “I’m trying to figure out how to get the House Republicans to hold these kinds of hearings,” Gingrich says.
Driverless cars would cost trillions of dollars to develop—and don’t have to be financed by government money—but would enable “people who are blind, aging or had too much to drink” to get where they need to go, Gingrich says.
But in the World According to Newt, there is a problem.
“The people most likely to develop the near future are scientists and technologists who are also the most likely to believe in big government solutions that don’t work,” he says. “Those opposed to big government aren’t intellectually interested in the scale of change” that is required.
Gingrich has emerged as a leading voice in calling out his fellow Republicans for living in a hermetically sealed bubble in 2012, to the point where many believed campaign surveys indicating that Romney was on the verge of beating President Obama. “Frankly, I was wrong too because I listened to the same polls,” he says.
Gingrich tells me he didn’t realize how far off course the party was until he saw the exit poll [data on Election Day]: “I was like an airline pilot whose plane just hit a mountain.”
While Gingrich remains a caustic conservative, he seems to be edging toward a big-tent philosophy. For instance, Gingrich is still opposed to gay marriage but he says he supports Rob Portman, who recently changed his position on the issue after the Ohio senator’s son came out as gay.
As a White House contender, Gingrich drew flak for saying that he was not going to “grab a grandmother and kick them out” if an illegal immigrant had been living peacefully in the United States for 25 years.
Romney, on the other hand, called on illegal immigrants to “self-deport.” Now even Reince Priebus, the Republican chairman, says in the wake of an “autopsy” report that harsh rhetoric such as Romney’s greatly alienated Hispanic voters.
Gingrich wants a grand compromise on immigration reform and says Republicans should push “a set of proposals that will cause the unions to go crazy,” including a guest worker program for educated applicants. He credits John Boehner with “quietly and methodically creating a bipartisan effort on immigration in the House.”
If that succeeds, says Gingrich, “Obama may discover he’s forced into governing, not campaigning, and that’s not necessarily to his advantage. If they can’t vilify us as an anti-immigrant party, our natural vote will rise.”
Getting the GOP’s warring factions to agree on immigration—not to mention gun control, gay rights and spending cuts—is easier said than done. But Gingrich sees no alternative. “If you want a national majority,” he tells me, “some really weird people are going to show up.”