“I am a grandiose thinker,” Newt Gingrich proclaimed in one of his more modest utterances of the recent presidential debates. Indeed, there is little that isn’t grandiose about the former House Speaker: from his proposals for a lunar colony to mine minerals to his more earthy appetites, from the partisan victories to his fall from political grace, the moral indignation and the moral failures, and, now, his latest breathtaking political resurrection. Newton Leroy Gingrich, history professor and maker of history, lover of policy minutiae and women he’s not married to, has become the sudden front-runner in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. With the Jan. 31 Florida primary on the horizon, Gingrich smashed Mitt Romney’s well-oiled political machine and beat him soundly in South Carolina—a state that has consistently predicted the party’s nominee for the last 32 years—grabbing a comfortable lead in polls of likely voters.
But national polls also show that more than half of Americans have an unfavourable opinion of Gingrich, and that Barack Obama could beat him handily if the election were held today. His sudden surge has many Republicans wondering how they got here.
The Republican primary voters—many of whom filled Tea Party rallies and showed scores of incumbent politicians of both parties the door in the November 2010 election—have sent a strong message that they are not finished with their desire to remake Washington. Romney, with his cool, managerial mien and moderate record as former governor of Massachusetts, does not seem to fit their notion of someone ready to show up on Inauguration Day and start blowing up the place. Whereas Gingrich has done it before, proving both that he is capable of remaking Washington—and that the process is rather messy. “I have an enormous personal ambition. I want to shift the entire planet. And I’m doing it,” Gingrich told the Washington Post in 1985.
Indeed, he has at one time or another compared himself to Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, both Roosevelts, Charles DeGaulle, the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, Pericles, and Braveheart. But who’s keeping count? (Answer: the Romney campaign.) And yet for all his self-aggrandizing grandiloquence, there is no denying that it was Gingrich who, as congressman from Georgia, became an architect of the “Contract with America,” the conservative policy manifesto that helped Republicans take over Congress in 1994 for the first time in 40 years. When Gingrich proclaims he’s not going to “manage the decay,” but instead bring “fundamental change,” it’s hard not to believe him.
Gingrich arrives at campaign stops in a big bus emblazoned with his pink, pudgy face, which seems ill-matched to his blaring campaign theme song, Eye of the Tiger, from Rocky III. That is, until he opens his mouth. “We need someone strong enough, bold enough and tough enough, first to go head-to-head with Obama this fall and win the debates and therefore win the election,” he says. “And second, to go head-to-head with Washington.” In Gingrich’s telling, Obama isn’t just a “socialist.” “We have the most radical president in the history of the United States,” Gingrich says in his stump speech. “And if he gets re-elected with his record, then he’ll be even more radical in his second term.”
He tells audiences that the choice is between himself and Romney, “someone who doesn’t have a history of changing the culture in Boston.” The combativeness pervades his pronouncements on everything from domestic policy to dealing with Iran. “If you look weak and timid, you increase the danger because you make them believe their aggressiveness is paying off.” And it all played well with voters in South Carolina. “People around here are more Newtish,” Republican voter Ida Martin, a 58-year-old bed and breakfast owner, said at a campaign event in Myrtle Beach. “They like Newt’s wording, how he stands up and has more fire in his belly. Mitt is more reserved. Santorum is a nice person. But Newt is a rebel.”
Indeed, the Gingrich-led Republican revolution of the 1990s represented not only a sea change in policy, but in hardball political tactics. After becoming Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1995, he successfully pushed through a conservative agenda of welfare reform, a large capital-gains tax cut, and balanced budgets. But he also overplayed his hand, shutting down the federal government twice in a standoff with Bill Clinton that turned public opinion against the Republicans, who appeared reckless. With Clinton winning re-election in 1996 and Republicans losing seats in 1998, the Speaker took the blame.
In 1997, Gingrich, who had pressed ethics investigations against Democrats, came under fire. He was fined $300,000 for violating tax law and giving false information to the House ethics committee, which was investigating accusations that he had claimed tax-exempt status for donations to pay for a course he taught at a college in Georgia, called “Renewing American civilization,” to be broadcast across the country as part of a political strategy. It wasn’t his only stumble. Gingrich led the early stages of the impeachment proceedings against Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky case, all the while carrying on an affair with a congressional staffer—now his third wife, Callista. (His first marriage also ended after Gingrich strayed.) Rebuffing accusations of hypocrisy—Gingrich has said he was “very careful” to make the distinction that he went after Clinton not because of his activities with the White House intern but because he lied about them under oath—he later blamed his own infidelity on his patriotism. “There’s no question, at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate,” Gingrich told the Christian Broadcast Network last March.
But where the Romney campaign has tried to portray an erratic, undisciplined leader, Gingrich has deftly turned his own hot-headedness into a selling point. When he was pressed in a televised debate about comments that poor children should be made to work as janitors in public schools to learn the value of work, he shot back at the questioner, and won the audience to his side. In another debate, asked about his second wife’s claims that he wanted an “open marriage,” Gingrich took the opportunity to level a scorched-earth attack against the media, again impressing GOP voters. The hotter Gingrich burned, the more he channelled Republican discontent, and made Romney look like a cold fish.
Back in Washington, though, the air is thick with Republican hand-wringing and stories of Gingrich’s excesses, his narcissism, and his policy schemes. To many of his conservative critics, his “big ideas” mean big and activist government—whether in his support for policies against global warming or a health insurance mandate. There is the now infamous 2008 TV ad he made for Al Gore’s environmental organization in which he called for action on climate change while sitting on a loveseat with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who in hard-core Republican circles is considered something of a she-demon.
The Romney campaign has been profiting from Republican lawmakers’ frustrations with Gingrich. But it’s his activities since leaving Congress in 1998 that are now drawing the most scrutiny. When he entered Congress, he left behind a modest salary of just over $10,000 as a professor at West Georgia College. By the time he left, he was earning tens of thousands in speaking fees, and millions in book royalties. (Gingrich has authored 23 books, both fiction and non-fiction, many of them bestsellers.) But that was just the beginning. Gingrich became a wealthy man in part by starting a consulting company that engaged in activities that did not quite rise to the fine-print legal definition of lobbying, charging companies hefty fees for access to top policy-makers. (The Washington Post recently calculated that his post-Congress activities brought his firm $100 million over 10 years.)
For example, one of his companies, a think tank called the Center for Health Transformation, charged dues of up to $200,000 per year, in return for clients’ access to Gingrich and his ability to pitch their interests and products to lawmakers in Washington and state capitals. One lobbyist watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, this month filed a complaint against Gingrich and his health centre for not registering as lobbyists and for not filing subsequent disclosure reports. The group claims that Gingrich repeatedly called and met with members of Congress to promote a bill that would extend government health insurance for seniors to cover prescription drugs. At least three lawmakers confirmed Gingrich lobbied them personally. Despite all that, Gingrich never registered as a lobbyist under the federal Lobbying Disclosure Act.
Meanwhile, as Gingrich’s consulting and speaking fees ratcheted up, so did his lifestyle. He began travelling by private jet and ran up a half-million-dollar credit line at the jeweller Tiffany & Co., buying his wife a diamond necklace. Gingrich dismissed reports on the spending by insisting he is “very frugal” and that he and his wife “live within our means.”
The role that is drawing the most scrutiny in the campaign is a $25,000-a-month contract Gingrich had with Freddie Mac, one of two government-backed mortgage lenders that Republicans have blamed for playing a large role in America’s subprime mortgage mess. Gingrich’s company received at least $1.6 million in fees from Freddie Mac over a span of eight years. Gingrich has given shifting explanations of his work. First he said the company hired him as a “historian,” then he said he provided “strategic advice.” He denied that he did any lobbying, but then released a copy of a 2006 one-year contract that described the work as providing “consulting and related services” to Freddie Mac’s chief lobbyist.
Gingrich wasn’t asked to personally deliver any message to Capitol Hill. But some prominent Republicans are among those not buying his explanations. “Strategic adviser? That is the oldest Washington dodge in the book,” said New Jersey’s Republican Gov. Chris Christie on Meet the Press. “That’s because he didn’t want to register as a lobbyist. He was using influence he obtained in public office to help them.” Christie is backing Romney.
A big test for Gingrich now comes on Tuesday, when Republicans cast their ballots in the populous and diverse state of Florida. Roughly two million people are expected to vote on Jan. 31—about double all the votes cast in the first three primary contests combined. And it takes a lot of money to fight the TV ad wars there. At the end of the last campaign finance disclosure period on Dec. 31, Romney had $19 million in the bank—$14 million more than Gingrich. Gingrich raised another $1 million in the 24 hours after his South Carolina win. Meanwhile, a single big supporter, Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson, who had contributed $5 million to a pro-Gingrich group to run TV ads for him earlier this year, signalled he would contribute another $5 million.
But Gingrich faces another obstacle. In Florida, close to 200,000 absentee ballots have already been cast—before his surge in the polls. And Romney has the money and the organization to play in other states across the country. It would help Gingrich if former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum would drop out of the race, allowing anti-Romney voters to coalesce around Gingrich. But Santorum so far is persevering. “The path to the nomination has just gotten longer, which means more road hazards,” said one of Santorum’s backers, Christian conservative leader Tony Perkins. “And with Newt driving, people anticipate that there could be some issues along the way.”