At Tommy’s Country Ham House in Greenville, S.C., Newt Gingrich gave the town-hall audience exactly what they wanted—a plate full of Republican red meat with a side order of Obama-bashing-Saul-Alinsky socialist hash.
“At a values level, we stand for American exceptionalism, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence,” Gingrich told the crowd during his swing through the state this week. The president “stands for some weird, European-internationalist-elitist-secular model that doesn’t work.”
The anti-Obama, anti-Democratic message put smiles on the faces in the meeting and has rocketed the former House speaker to the top of the Republican field. As conservatives have searched for someone, anyone, to take the fight to the president and his party, Gingrich has reprised his role as a one-man Democratic attack machine—ripping into President Obama, hammering Democrats in Congress, and even suggesting prison time for Rep. Barney Frank and former senator Chris Dodd for their role in botching oversight of the banking industry.
But the attack dog on the trail doesn’t square with the person Gingrich became after he left Congress in the late 1990s. With his speakership behind him and a think tank to run, a more moderate Newt Gingrich quickly became the Democrats’ go-to conservative whenever they wanted to make a splash on a policy issue or get bipartisan credit for an initiative or cause.
From pitching health-care reforms with Hillary Clinton and Tom Daschle to criss-crossing the country with Al Sharpton for an Obama charter-schools initiative to famously sharing a loveseat with Speaker Nancy Pelosi to urge action on climate change, Gingrich made the most of his common ground with Democrats and the strange-bedfellows plotlines that reporters could not ignore.
“It was an irresistible story—the bitter partisan had changed like a chameleon and become a sounding board for bipartisan big-picture ideas,” says Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the late Ted Kennedy. “As has become evident, however, very few if any of these activities weren’t designed to enrich Newt Inc.”
To Manley’s point, the areas where Gingrich partnered with Democrats were often, but not always, related to his Center for Health Transformation, the for-profit think he ran with the backing of large health-care providers. According to The Washington Post, the center raked in more than $37 million from health-care concerns in the last eight years.
In May of 2004, Gingrich launched an effort with then-congressman Patrick Kennedy to call for electronic health records. The two held press conferences and penned an op-ed piece together for The New York Times.
Other initiatives, including those with Clinton and Daschle, usually featured Gingrich and his Democratic partner doing a double-take-inducing round of joint appearances, reports, op-eds, and press conferences that were heavy on substance and missing the impeachment-era lectures that Gingrich had become known for. Instead, Gingrich played the statesman, burying the hatchet and proffering big ideas to tackle big problems.
But Gingrich also worked on issues with no relationship to his think tank. And even when he was supposed to fight with Democrats, he often managed to find common ground. At a 2007 debate with John Kerry on climate change, Gingrich and the senator agreed on so much—including the need for immediate action to reduce carbon emissions—that The Washington Post dedicated an entire column to the cage-match-turned-“love fest.”
In 2009, Gingrich and Al Sharpton joined Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Meet the Press to support Obama’s push for more charter schools, and Gingrich praised the president for having “the courage” to take on entrenched interests on both sides of the issue.
“Our children deserve a chance to see us come together to put their future above partisanship and take on the establishment in both parties to try to get this solved,” Gingrich told David Gregory. “I think the country is tired of politicians finding a reason not to try to work together and not to try to gamble on the future.”
That let’s-work-together message isn’t one that Gingrich hits much on the trail these days, but strategists from both parties say the stealth aisle-crosser in Gingrich could be a game changer with moderate and independent voters, especially in states like New Hampshire, where Mitt Romney is struggling to hold off the late Gingrich surge.
“If you walk down the street in Iowa, South Carolina, or New Hampshire, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find voters who think that Newt Gingrich compromises on his ideological beliefs,” says Patrick Griffin, a Boston-based GOP consultant and fellow at New Hampshire’s Saint Anselm College.
“But he can say, ‘Yes, I’ve joined with a lot of folks who are not necessarily my political cup of tea. But it’s been for the purpose of promoting a cause that is worthwhile.’ Maybe it’s time we have a little more of that in Washington right now.”
Doug Thornell, a former Democratic leadership aide, says Gingrich has a real bipartisan record to run on, if he’s willing to embrace it.
“If you look at his DNA, he tried to do a historic deal with Clinton. It’s in him to go big on these things and seek Democrats’ cover, but it may come back to haunt him now,” Thornell says. “If somehow Newt got the nomination, what he can easily say is, “Look, I was speaker during the most economically prosperous times and I worked with Bill Clinton to do X, Y, and Z. Washington was dysfunctional then, too, but we figured out a way to make it work.’”
So which Newt would show up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue if he managed to move in—the flame-throwing partisan voters see today, or the ally that some Democrats have come to know and rely on?
“You’d get both,” says Craig Shirley, a Gingrich and Reagan biographer. “It’s one and the same Newt Gingrich.”
Shirley points to Gingrich working with Clinton on welfare reform, NAFTA, capital gains tax cuts, and term limits for committee chairmen as evidence that working with Democrats on big ideas is Gingrich’s M.O., not just a recent tactic to make clients happy.
“There was the firebrand in public, but there was also somebody in private who could be more conciliatory and open to bipartisan efforts,” says Shirley. “It wasn’t transactional. He truly is motivated by ideas.”
If anyone knows the two sides of Newt, it’s the 42nd president, the man Gingrich alternately hugged and hunted throughout the 1990s. And Clinton recently offered high praise for his old adversary, telling Newsmax that Gingrich’s rise in the polls is fueled by his think-big approach.
“He’s articulate and he tries to think of a conservative version of an idea that will solve a legitimate problem,” Clinton said. “I think he’s doing well just because he’s thinking, and people are hungry for ideas that make some sense.”
That may amount to an endorsement for some moderate voters—and be the kiss of death among some conservatives already wary of Newt’s aisle-crossing past.