March 6, 2009


Newt. Again. (MATT BAI, 3/01/09, NY Times Magazine)

Is the Republican future going to continue to rely on country-club denizens and the rural bloc, or should it aim more for working-class Catholics or recent immigrants? Can a party trying to expand its coalition afford to make fundamentalist religious values a core tenet of its ideology? Or to assault the very idea of government? In many ways, as the most-blogged-about politician since the election, Sarah Palin has become a kaleidoscope through which to view these questions. For many Republicans, the Alaska governor and hockey mom is the new and galvanizing face of conservative America; to others, Palin personifies everything that’s wrong with the party, an approach short on intellect and long on cultural resentment.

Gingrich seems to have decided not to choose sides in this debate. On one hand, he holds himself up as the heir to the more progressive, reformist tradition in of his party, an intellectual provocateur in the model of early progressives like Teddy Roosevelt, Robert La Follette and Hiram Johnson. Twice during our conversations, Gingrich referred me to the chapter in Theodore White’s “Making of the President, 1960” in which White describes how Roosevelt led the progressives out of the Republican Party, leaving behind a more reactionary, isolationist wing that would dominate the party for most of the next 50 years. To Gingrich, this is the same tension that exists today, and he describes it as a continuing struggle between ideas and ignorance, between one group that always wants to modernize the party and another that’s nostalgic for the past.

And yet, at the same time, Gingrich pointedly declines to do what Roosevelt and La Follette did, which is to directly confront the Republican orthodoxies of their day. Those reformers demanded their fellow Republicans make a choice between ideas and ignorance. By contrast, Gingrich doesn’t really challenge any core ideological precept of the Bush era — only the strategy of “base mobilization” that underlay it. Nor do the last several months of economic calamity seem to have ignited in him any of the populist fervor that energized an earlier generation of progressives. His main remedy for the financial crisis has been to repeal the Sarbanes-Oxley law that Congress passed to step up regulation after the Enron scandal; Gingrich claims such accounting rules as “mark to market” are needlessly crippling banks and small businesses. In other words, his prescription for the runaway financial industry is to regulate it less — a position that hardly sounds like a departure from Bush, let alone progressive or insurrectionary.

At a moment when the role of religious fundamentalism in the party is a central question for reformers, Gingrich, rather than making any kind of case for a new enlightenment, has in fact gone to great lengths to placate Christian conservatives. The family-values crowd has never completely embraced Newt, probably because he has been married three times, most recently to a former Hill staff member, Callista Bisek. In 2006, though, Gingrich wrote a book called “Rediscovering God in America” — part of a new canon of work he has done reaffirming the role of religion in public life. The following year, he went on radio with the evangelical minister James Dobson to apologize for having been unfaithful to his second wife. (A Baptist since graduate school, Gingrich said he will soon convert to Catholicism, his wife’s faith.)

Can Bill Clinton and W be far behind?

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 6, 2009 8:47 AM
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