In a city where survival is the supreme value, few prominent politicians who have failed have been as resilient as Newt Gingrich. Having led the Republicans to power in the House in 1994 he had to resign as Speaker, and left Congress, after the 1998 elections; his overzealousness in pursuing the impeachment of Bill Clinton was seen as having cost the Republicans five seats. By that time, the formerly much-feared Speaker of the House was widely seen as a joke.
Since his humiliating dismissal, Gingrich has, through sheer cleverness and brashness, once again thrust himself onto the Washington stage. He is more visible now than anyone would have dreamed possible when he left Congress. He serves on a Pentagon advisory board and talks with Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld; and he has influential allies such as Grover Norquist, the leader of a coalition of about a hundred conservative groups advocating a reduced federal government. He has support from powerful business executives and is highly popular with the activist conservative base of the party.
It’s not that Gingrich ever went away. After he left Congress, he opened his own consulting firm, from which he dispensed expensive thoughts to businesspeople and made highly paid speeches. He was given an office at the American Enterprise Institute, and before long, he was appearing once again on talk shows. Gingrich knows that talk-show guests are often invited mostly for the attention they get for their controversial statements, and he doesn’t disappoint.
Now Gingrich has published a new book, Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America, and has let it be known in interviews that he may well run for president in 2008. Preposterous as this may seem, he understands that if he says he is a candidate this will get him more attention and sell more books. In fact, some of his friends think he’s serious about running. His first “Contract with America” provided the platform on which Republicans successfully ran for the House in 1994. Among its ten items were demands for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget, tougher sentences for crimes, welfare reform, tax cuts, increased defense spending, and a rollback of regulations on business. But the Contract with America was less important as an instrument of the Republican victory than as a program for the party, which had been out of power in Congress for forty years.
At least as important for the Republican victory in the 1994 election were not only the missteps of the first two years of the Clinton administration, among them Hillary Clinton’s health care bill, but Gingrich’s own canny assembling of a coalition of interest groups, including gun owners and the Christian right, as well as his attacks on House Democrats for arrogance and corruption as he made the election for the House a national one.
As a legislative program the contract was only partially successful—in the end, according to the nonpartisan National Journal, about a third of …