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The Ornery Observer
December 25, 2009

Newt Gingrich: An Exemplary Republican
by Paul Gottfried

ELIZABETHTOWN, PA — Although it may be hard for some to see that former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is a very representative Republican, this fact came through clearly when he chose sides in a recent race.

Gingrich’s endorsement of a liberal Republican in New York’s 23rd Congressional District against a Conservative Party challenger upset his movement conservative base. That base criticized him for endorsing a social leftist simply because New York State Republican Commissioners had done so. Newt explained that because Ms. Scozzafava got the nod of party officials, it was his duty as a GOP member to back her. Gingrich also expressed exuberant affection for “the American two-party system because it allows for opposing points of view.” One might ask why it is necessary to have only two parties to get opposing views heard. Wouldn’t the same end be even better served by having three or four parties?

But none of those arrangements suits Gingrich, who likes the party system just as it is. He has spent his life as a highly visible Republican politician, first as a Congressman from suburban Atlanta, then as Republican Minority Whip, and finally as the Speaker of the House who engineered the Contract with America in 1994. This Republican statement, partly framed by Gingrich, stressed term limits for political office, a balanced budget, and restrictions on the federal welfare state.

A series of embarrassments, including the revelation of unpaid taxes and the perception of him as a polarizing figure, led to his temporary resignation from national politics in 1998. The rain poured even harder when it was learned that Gingrich was carrying on an affair with the woman who became his third wife; he engaged in this activity while going after President Clinton over Monica Lewinsky. But in the last few years, Newt has been back in public view, seeking the presidency through his frequent appearances on FOX and through his lobbying group, American Solutions for Winning the Future.

Gingrich has also moved vocally to the right on certain social issues, particularly in his opposition to illegal immigration, and he converted to Roman Catholicism as an expression of his moral traditionalism. But in foreign affairs, he has hardly changed since the 1980s, when he teamed up with the neoconservatives. He still calls for a strong military response to “Islamic terrorism” or “Islamofascism,” and he wants us to fight on against this threat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I first encountered Gingrich while a faculty member at Rockford College in the late 1970s, when he came to lecture us on the future of the computer and the Republican Party. The young Congressman called upon the GOP to provide incentives to technical innovators in the Silicon Valley. High-tech producers and engineers, we were told, were shaping our economic future. I do not recall specific policy recommendations, but I do remember that he was big on promoting computer industries as the key to future GOP victories.

In the 1980s, he and the late Jack Kemp were among the leading congressional backers of the Martin Luther King national holiday; and Gingrich seconded Kemp when he chided his party for not doing enough to attract minorities. Gingrich also joined the upstate New York congressman in talking up supply-side economics and a special relationship with Israel.

In the 1990s, Gingrich as an enemy of tax-and-spend politicians went after the Clinton administration. Gingrich played this hand well. In 1994, his party swept the congressional races, increasing its majorities in both houses. But personal spats with Clinton and a passion for partisan grandstanding hurt the Speaker, and by 1998 his Republican majority in Congress had begun to shrink.

Most recently, Gingrich has praised loyalty to liberal Republicans as the ultimate proof of party solidarity. This is hardly surprising. Despite his image as an outspoken ideologue, Gingrich is essentially a Republican politician, albeit one who tries to stay in the news. He is a party loyalist who wants to avoid looking wilted. Contrary to the unfair opinion of his leftist critics, his maneuvering has not pushed him consistently rightward. Gingrich made a name for himself as a supporter of minority-outreach, and on this issue, he often gave the impression of being a liberal Democrat.

He also found ways of politely disagreeing with President Bush on illegal immigrants, but he never broke rank on foreign policy, except to advocate a more emphatically neoconservative course. Gingrich may have surpassed Bush in his enthusiasm for what many now view as the former President’s foreign policy blunders. In the unlikely event that Gingrich becomes president, I suspect that his policies would resemble those of Bush Two.

Gingrich would govern from the center, while renewing his efforts to pull minorities into the GOP. At the same time, he would pursue a recognizably neoconservative foreign policy, centered on extensive military commitments and on standing up for "democracy" in the Middle East. Gingrich veered to the right on immigration when Bush was almost out of office. At that point, he was trying to gain support on the right to win the presidential nomination or sharpen his profile as a “conservative” critic of the incoming Democratic administration.

Gingrich took his resounding stand against “amnestying illegals” when Bush was almost out of office, while Gingrich was going after the presidency as a “conservative.” This attempt to look daring without deviating as a party loyalist is vintage Gingrich.

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The Ornery Observer is copyright © 2009 by by Paul Gottfried and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation.  All rights reserved. A version of this column appeared in the Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Newspapers in October 2008. All rights reserved.

Paul Gottfried, Ph.D., is the Raffensperger professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
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