Beware the Ideas of Newt

By claiming that he’s a “man of ideas," Newt Gingrich has gained a following of columnists. But, Eric Alterman asks, what are his ideas?

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When a columnist needs to write a column and is lacking ideas (or reportage), they often, rather ironically, fall back on a column about “ideas” in general: Why there aren’t any good ones anymore, why the ones they like aren’t getting more attention, or, in this instance, why the people whose ideas they like aren’t being listened to. Case in point: Columnists on Newt Gingrich.

David Brooks of The New York Times wrote earlier this summer that Gingrich “articulates the transformational view [of the Republican party] in its purest form” and that he wishes “the GOP [had] Newt Gingrich’s brain lodged in Fred Thompson’s temperament.”

Jason Zengerle of The New Republic wrote about Joe Klein’s desire for the GOP install Gingrich as the  “party ideologist.” He also cites Washington Times editorial page editor Tony Blankley, Gingrich’s former spokesperson, who says that “Newt obviously has ideas, so he gains cachet from the contrast with people just wandering around repeating slogans.”

And believe it or not, an article in The New York Times invokes Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech to outline Gingrich’s commitment to changing the “sorry state of the Nation’s political discourse.” (Although I suppose it was fair, since Gingrich was speaking there and everyone who speaks there invokes Lincoln, including yours truly.)

The column is by nature such an abbreviated form that there’s no real opportunity to do justice to a genuine idea. But what exactly are Gingrichian ideas? After leaving Congress, Gingrich spent his years out of power writing and working at the American Enterprise Institute—and also posting a super-large number of reviews on Amazon. Flirting with (but apparently not consummating) the idea of a presidential campaign, he made statements such as:

“I’m going to tell you something, and whether or not it’s plausible given the world you come out of is your problem. I am not ‘running’ for president. I am seeking to create a movement to win the future by offering a series of solutions so compelling that if the American people say I have to be president, it will happen.”

Well that makes things clearer. But Newt’s brand of winning the future was revealed in explicit detail at an AEI speech this week where he imagined the past six years as if someone, say, more like him had been president. Some of Newt’s alternative history plans included dealing with the problem nations of the Middle East—Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia—as a “regional conflict.” “A grand strategy would have built up sufficient economic, political, and military power to confront the four nations with a simple choice: change your behavior or have your regimes changed.”

Three more wars when we were doing so well in the two we appear to be losing. And what of Pakistan? Why do they get off so easily? They have Muslims, after all. Last year on “Meet the Press,” he also noted, “I believe if you take all the countries I just listed, that you’ve been covering, put them on a map, look at all the different connectivity, you’d have to say to yourself this is, in fact, World War III.”

What else besides war is on Newt’s mind? Gingrich gave an enlightening speech back in march at Conservative PAC convention, which Matt Hanlin critiqued in The Huffington Post, saying:

“He specifically mentioned making English the official language for government, passing legislation to keep ‘one nation under God’ in the pledge of allegiance, and creating a system of rating health care providers by quality and price to enable better consumer choice. The first two ‘proposals’ Gingrich put out would not do a whit for anything that is substantively wrong with this country. The third is a marginal improvement that wouldn’t guarantee that even one person who cannot currently afford to have health care now would be able to get it after Gingrich’s rating system is implemented.”

During the same speech, Gingrich also blamed the victims of Katrina for what he termed their “failure of citizenship in the Ninth Ward, where 22,000 people were so uneducated and so unprepared, they literally couldn’t get out of the way of a hurricane.” Of course if they had a functioning government upon which to rely… oh, never mind.

And Gingrich last December attended a “free speech” dinner hosted by New Hampshire’s powerhouse paper, The Manchester Union Leader, where he expressed some rather odd ideas about the topic at hand. He followed up his comments in a Manchester Union Leader op-ed the next week, writing “The fact is that not all speech is permitted under the Constitution.” He suggested that the government be empowered to shut down web sites that recruit suicide bombers and urged “an expeditious review of current domestic law to see what changes can be made within the protections of the First Amendment to ensure that free speech protection claims are not used to protect the advocacy of terrorism, violent conduct or the killing of innocents.”

As for the Bush administration, what does he say? As Zengerle noted, Gingrich has said, “I think the administration is trapped in normalcy.” While one can find any number of problems in any number of areas of Bush administration governance, its commitment to “normalcy” would fall rather low on most people’s lists.

The New Republic’s Jon Chait has aptly noted that “Newt Gingrich is living proof that you can acquire a reputation as a man of ideas merely by insisting with sufficient repetitiveness that you care deeply about ideas.”  Bad ideas have been a staple of conservative politics for decades now, and indeed, may be the only acceptable kind. But the given how little scrutiny Newt’s notions can withstand, what does it say about the pundits who peddle them?

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His weblog, “Altercation,” appears at, His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.

Research Assistance: Tim Fernholz

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Eric Alterman

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