Not the wonky party eminence who talks about a 21st-century air traffic control system or health information technology or an expanded electric power grid. Rather, it’s the voluble provocateur who’s returned, the guy who throws lightning bolts across the partisan divide.
And that Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and GOP firebrand, is emerging as one of President Barack Obama’s sharpest critics at a time when most Republicans are leery of taking on the president by name.
“Frankly, this does look a lot like Jimmy Carter,” Gingrich said Monday on “Fox & Friends,” slamming the president for shaking hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. “Carter tried weakness, and the world got tougher and tougher, because the predators, the aggressors, the anti-Americans, the dictators — when they sense weakness, they all start pushing ahead.”
In the three months that Obama has been president, Gingrich has blasted the Democrat on a number of different fronts, from the economy and domestic policy to defense and foreign policy.
Obama’s budget? It “deliberately” reduces charitable deductions in the tax code to wage a “war against churches and charities.” His stimulus plan? An attempt to create a “European socialist model.” At one point during the omnibus spending bill debate, Gingrich said of the Obama administration: “I wonder how dumb they think we are that we wouldn’t notice 8,000 earmarks.”
He doesn’t mince words in his bracing critiques. After North Korea recently tested a missile, Gingrich accused Obama of engaging in “fantasy foreign policy” that could create “enormous trouble” for the United States. As for former Vice President Dick Cheney, Gingrich said he’s “clearly right” that the United States “is running greater risks of getting attacked than we were under President Bush.”
No one, not even the press, is immune from his barbs. The media’s obsession with the president’s new first dog, he said recently, is “fairly stupid.”
“Gingrich is the classic political counterinsurgent. He thrives in periods of time when he is able to post up against an agenda,” said Phil Musser, a GOP consultant and the former executive director of the Republican Governors Association.
Until recently, the former Georgia congressman who helped lead House Republicans to power in 1994 had assumed a different — and quieter — role. After leaving Congress in 1998, he engaged in more personal pursuits, such as writing novels on World War II and the Civil War and making a documentary about faith in America. He also threw himself into health care, energy and other big-picture policy issues and created a group, American Solutions for Winning the Future, designed to provide intellectual ammunition to Republicans.
As recently as a year ago, Gingrich was appearing in nationally televised ads with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), urging Americans to come together to find a solution to climate change. And following Obama’s much-noted speech on race during the Democratic presidential primary, Gingrich praised him for providing the nation with an opportunity to “re-engage in a dialogue about poverty, race and the future of those Americans who are currently unable to pursue happiness.”
But now, with no clear Republican Party figurehead, Gingrich has stepped into the void to become one of his party’s top critics of both the White House and the Democratic Congress.
“If anybody doubts that he is the de facto leader of the Republican Party right now, they’re crazy,” said Matt Towery, CEO of the polling firm InsiderAdvantage and a former Gingrich aide. “Newt Gingrich is filling void that nobody else is stepping up to fill right now.”
Gingrich, of course, wasn’t totally disengaged during the presidency of George W. Bush. He frequently spoke with high-level administration officials, offering advice, support and sometimes criticism, said Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist.
But he largely kept his own views quiet during the Bush years, choosing not to put himself in a position to criticize the leader of his party, said Norquist.
“It is difficult for a leading Republican to help steer a Republican president with public pronouncements,” he said. “What do you say when your team is making a mistake but you don’t want to sound disloyal?”
With Bush out of the White House, Republicans reeling and Democrats in charge, Gingrich now operates free of any constraints.
“For whatever reason, everything that was made a negative about Newt Gingrich or Bill Clinton or any of the figures of the 1990s sort of fades away, and these guys are now just left as political giants,” said Towery. “The John Boehners of the world have not been vilified or exalted enough to the point that everyone knows who they are.”
“Who else is on all the morning talk shows consistently?” he asked.
While Gingrich declined to comment for this story, a month into Obama’s presidency, he lifted the curtain on his opposition to the new president in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference.
“We now have more than enough evidence of what this administration thinks of the American people,” Gingrich said before launching into a blistering critique of Obama. “Now, a month ago, I would not have said what I’m about to say, but I’ve watched carefully the first month of the left-wing machine.”
Norquist explained that Gingrich is an obvious choice for who should serve as the GOP’s voice because “he’s got 20 IQ points on some of the alternatives.”
The former speaker is taking full advantage of his new platform as a go-to commentator on the political news of the day. He uses his media appearances to publicize many of the policy objectives he worked on quietly during the Bush administration. During television interviews, for example, he frequently points viewers to the American Solutions website and often turns specific questions into broad policy discourses.
“Gingrich has been smart about looking down the field — looking at not only where the issues are today but where they will be in six, nine, 12 months,” said Musser. “And he is in a unique position to do it because he is not held to full accountability, because he is not tethered to elected office.”