The GOP's New Populists

In an exclusive interview, Newt Gingrich talks about Republicans bashing business, Obama's rough start, Judd Gregg's departure, and his master plan for a GOP comeback.

In an exclusive interview, Newt Gingrich talks about Republicans bashing business, Obama's rough start, Judd Gregg's departure, and his master plan for a GOP comeback. Avlon is the author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe Is Hijacking America.

Newt Gingrich is getting ready for his second act with a vengeance. Always the smartest man in the Republican Party (and never shy about admitting it), he led the GOP to its unprecedented Contract With America-driven congressional resurgence in 1994 and then yelled plays from the sidelines during the disastrous Tom DeLay-George W. Bush combination of this decade.

Now with the Republican Party in the wilderness under President Barack Obama, Newt's ideas are again in demand. The party faithful want their spiritual leader back. And Newt’s happy to comply, throwing punches whether the topic is Obama, big business, or Bush.

With regard to our new president, Gingrich is respectful but he senses blood in the water.

Of the Obama administration, “the breathtaking amount of mismanagement we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks is something I’ve not seen in a long time,” Gingrich said.

"President Obama has not yet reconciled his bipartisan rhetoric with his partisan policies. I think they're kidding themselves if they think they can have left-wing policies and a left-wing power structure and pretend to be bipartisan," Gingrich says. "In a sense, they are recreating the red vs. blue partisanship that we were all tired of. And they've managed to do it in less than a month... The breathtaking amount of mismanagement we've seen in the last couple of weeks is something I've not seen in a long time."

Thursday’s abrupt resignation of Commerce Secretary-designate Judd Gregg seems case in point. "Gregg said that he was deeply disturbed by the fact that they were putting Commerce in the White House, which totally politicizes it. And then he was deeply opposed to the stimulus package," explains Gingrich. "I don't think that President Obama realizes yet that bipartisanship actually requires listening to the other side. Not just lining up and having a speech, but actually having them involved. And when they allowed Nancy Pelosi and David Obey to write an $800 billion bill with no Republican involvement they made it virtually impossible to give it genuine bipartisanship."

One feature of the GOP resistance to the stimulus bill is a renewed conservative populism—it is anti-big business as well as anti-big government. To some it's an ill fit, but Gingrich welcomes what he sees as a return to Reaganism and small government. Reagan "represented grassroots America reforming Washington; he did not represent the elites telling the American people what to do,” he says. “Over the last eight years the Republican Party became the right wing of the party of big government, and forgot that its grassroots was with the American people. I'm delighted that they're going back. There are simple tests: Is it better or worse for small business? Is it better or worse for the self-employed, for entrepreneurial startups, for your local synagogue, for your local community? If in fact it's terrific for Citibank and GM, but bad for small business, then it's an elite bill—it's not a populist bill."

But Gingrich is impatient with Republican voices who counsel nothing but a "No-Bama" strategy—waiting for Democratic excesses to make a case for Republican restoration rather than putting forward a positive counteragenda. "Those folks are generally unprepared to lead, unprepared to govern and don't have a clue about history,” he says. “If you don't stand for something and you don't win the argument and you don't have people vote for you for a good positive reason, then you have no political capital to spend. I mean, if they didn't learn that from the 2004 election then they may be un-educable. Proving that there were more anti-Kerry votes than there were anti-Bush votes was no basis for a second term."

These days, Gingrich is busy pitching policy prescriptions on his website. He thinks he may have found the basis for a new Contract With America: "12 American Solutions for Jobs and Prosperity." It builds on the framing first laid down in his book Real Change, picking issues which can gain the support of 80-plus percent of the American people, in what he calls a "red, white and blue" coalition.

When I question whether he governed so inclusively as Speaker of the House in the 1990s, he quickly counters. "When we passed welfare reform, we got exactly half the Democrats to vote with us, 101 to 101. When we passed the Balanced Budget Amendment, we got about half the Democrats to vote with us. When we passed the actual balanced budget itself, we had a majority of Democrats vote with us. If you go back and look, you'll see we consistently picked fights that were very popular with the American people and the American people convinced Democrats to vote with us."

Gingrich's greatest resentment might be toward those successor GOP leaders in the house who ruined his legacy by squandering the Republican Party's traditional claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility. "They forgot that they were the party of the American people and decided they belonged to the party of big government…they thought that power mattered more than ideas and principle and policy—and they were wrong."

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But Gingrich doesn't just blame ego or abandonment of principle for the Republicans' problems—he blames incompetence: "It's bad government which kept interest rates artificially low; it's bad government which encouraged people to buy houses they couldn't afford; bad government which created regulation that killed jobs; it's bad government which had a 200-person, $62 million-a-year federal office to supervise Freddie and Fannie which failed totally."

And when asked the next logical question, whether George W. Bush was a failed president, Gingrich bobbed and weaved only slightly: "I think that it is clearly a presidency that will be seen as having one or two great successes and number of serious failures."

As the Republican Party adjusts itself to life in the wilderness, many observers are asking who is the next Newt Gingrich. To Newt Gingrich the answer is clear—it's him.

John P. Avlon is the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics. Avlon also served as director of speechwriting and deputy director of policy for Rudolph Giuliani's presidential campaign. Previously, he was a columnist for the New York Sun and served as chief speechwriter and deputy communications director for then-Mayor Giuliani.