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Gingrich Thinks No Candidate a Match
For the Clinton Machine

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich at the Iowa straw poll. (Reuters).

Newt Gingrich, who must wake up each day spewing ideas and dispensing advice, offered a gloomy prognosis today of his party's chances of winning the White House in 2008 and his own prospects of running.

"I believe for any Republican to win in 2008, they have to have a clean break and offer a dramatic, bold change," he said. "If we nominate somebody who has not done that...they're very, very unlikely to win it."

Republicans must break with President Bush and separate themselves from the current state of the political system, he said, and so far none of the current candidates has met that test. But he also made clear that there is now almost no likelihood that he will become a candidate himself, having too little money, too much baggage and too much impatience for a successful campaign.

Gingrich, like many Republicans, believes Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee, and he spoke with some awe of the Clinton machine after remarking on the fact that, on the same day, Bill Clinton was on Oprah and Hillary Clinton was on the Ellen DeGeneres show. "As a professional, I am very, very impressed," he said.

Clinton can be defeated, he said, but only by the kind of campaign that none of the potential nominees is yet running. "None of the Republicans have figured out how to get a routine, repetitive explanation of the future that breaks out of the current situation and that's their primary challenge," he said. "Whoever does that will both, I think, win the nomination and have a realistic chance of defeating Sen. Clinton."

Gingrich is enamored with the French connection. What Republicans need is an American version of French President Nicholas Sarkozy, who boldly broke with his party's leader, then-President Jacques Chirac, on the way to victory earlier this year. Gingrich used the Sarkozy example to dismiss the view widely held by Republican strategists that breaking with Bush would alienate the party's conservative base and jeopardize a candidate's chances in the nominating battle.

"The very fact that you have consultant-dominated campaigns tells you they'll be incremental, timid and lacking in these kinds of bold changes," he said. "You think the Republican base is proud of New Orleans...? The average Republican is pretty smart. The average Republican is sitting out there saying, 'This ain't working.'"

Gingrich offered his views at a press breakfast called to promote the late-September launch of his American Solutions enterprise, a grandly ambitious enterprise aimed at transforming government and, ultimately, the country.

The launch will be a typical Gingrich effort with biting analysis of the status quo, provocative ideas, the embrace of technology and bold predictions -- and it clearly is more important to him than running for president.

The former speaker has said he was putting off a decision about running in 2008 until after the launch, but the criteria he laid out today left little room for him to say yes, repeating what he has said before: "I think the odds are very high that I won't run," he said.

What would it take? His first criterion is that there must be a vacuum in the nomination battle. Gingrich foresees a contest that could remain muddled well into next spring and could go all the way to the Republican convention. "The odds are even money you're not going to have a nominee after Feb. 5th," he said. "You're going to have chaos on our side."

His second criterion is there must be escalating fear inside the party that none of the current candidates can defeat Clinton and that Republicans will be looking around for someone else.

The first two criteria are possible. The third criterion, however, seems the one most likely to keep Gingrich out of the race. That is the issue of money.

"The only circumstance where I'd want to undertake a personal candidacy would have to involve the ability to raise enough money to be genuinely competitive in a race where my presumption is Governor Romney can write a 50 or 60 million dollar check," he said.

Gingrich's analysis of why government is dysfunctional and the scope of change needed to make it work -- the focus of his new enterprise -- sounds very much like the kind of clean-break, conservative platform designed for a presidential campaign. And yet Gingrich remains hesitant to plunge into the campaign.

My colleague David Broder asked Gingrich why he shouldn't test those ideas in a presidential campaign. He said he would if he "thought there was a way to get the current campaign structure to handle that level of change." Clearly he does not believe that is possible.

The reluctant candidate argued that the kind of conversation needed to inject these ideas into a campaign is almost impossible in a world of 30-second ads and eight-second sound bites. But he knows his own record offers too large a target to make a candidacy viable.

"The first thing that would happen if I were a candidate is we would revisit every possible negative," he said. "The second thing that would happen is all of my good friends who are great consultants would all figure out the right phone call and the right 30-second commercial and the right direct mail and we'd be totally bogged down in the politics of the past. And that's why I'm very cautious."

Gingrich was then asked, if it's impossible in the United States, why did it work for Sarkozy in France? "It's a huge jump from former speaker of the House to the defining figure in American conservatism. Sarkozy had made that transition," he said.

Reminded that at the time he became speaker, he was the defining figure in American conservatism, Gingrich agreed -- and then admitted failure. "I would say that we failed to change the underlying culture of our party," he said. "I spent five or six years thinking about the fact that most of the people who got power as a result of the election of '94 did not understand what we'd accomplished and did not understand why we had accomplished it."

The result was that Republicans reverted to their past, squandered their gains and now enter the 2008 campaign as underdogs to extend their control of the White House for another four years. Gingrich will continue to watch from the sidelines -- ever the analyst in the booth, but not willing to step onto the field.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  September 14, 2007; 12:50 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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