“We need very bold, dramatic change, change at every level.... That's what the Republican Party has to stand for.”
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been toying with the idea of jumping into the GOP presidential contest, sat down with National Journal's Linda Douglass this week to discuss the 2008 candidate fields, the state of American politics and his own future. Edited excerpts follow.
National Journal subscribers can access previous Insider Interviews by clicking here. To learn more about National Journal, including how to subscribe, click here, or read this week's National Journalcover story for free.
Q: You said fairly recently that the Democrats had a very high likelihood of winning the presidency next year.
Gingrich: I think that the country, after the last couple of years, has a bias in favor of change -- I think probably starting with [Hurricane] Katrina and coming through Baghdad and the whole sense of too much spending. And you sense a lack of enthusiasm in the conservative base, and you sense a stunning level of intensity in the anti-war Left. And so you just look at the dynamics and you have to say the odds are probably 80-20 [in the Democrats' favor].
Gingrich: Yeah. That's my guess. Now, it could change. If you had a [Republican] candidate who could break out and who could say, "Obviously, we need to change pretty dramatically, and the party of trial lawyers, public employee unions, [and] left-wing ideologues probably can't change," and could force Hillary [Rodham Clinton] or Barack Obama or whomever to be the defender of failed bureaucracies, then I think you could see a Republican win next year. But I don't think they can win by passively staying within the framework of where we have been.
Q: Let's talk about the Republicans who are in the race, starting with former Governor Mitt Romney. Is he the kind of visionary you think the country needs?
Gingrich: Look, I think there are three or four possible Republican nominees -- [Rudy] Giuliani, Romney, [Fred] Thompson, [Mike] Huckabee, and, based on his recent re-energizing, [John] McCain. All of them are smart people. None of them have yet broken out and begun to define a fundamentally different future.
Q: You did say at one point that McCain was deeply at odds with the GOP base and that that would affect his chances. You seem to have changed your view somewhat.
Gingrich: He has recognized that the Senate immigration bill that he supported was hopeless. McCain has moved much closer to the Republican base. The Republican base hasn't moved closer to McCain. And on issues of war and on issues of honor and military capability, John McCain has an extraordinary personal story.
Q: Giuliani supports abortion rights and certainly some forms of gun control. Isn't he also deeply at odds with the base?
Gingrich: I think part of the difference was that there are no Giuliani-Kennedy bills. There are no Giuliani-Feingold bills. Giuliani is a New York, moderate Republican. But he hasn't gone out of his way to pick fights with the Republican base.
Q: Fred Thompson's rollout has generally not gotten rave reviews. What do you think of it and of him?
Gingrich: I think that any Republican has to have a core, direct, compelling message of why they would be different than [President] Bush and why they would be different than Clinton. And they have to be able to say it in 30 seconds. And they have to be able to say it so that people in their living room believe it matters to them and their family. None of our candidates have yet found that rhythm.
Q: What aren't the Republicans saying that they should be?
Gingrich: We need very bold, dramatic change, change at every level -- from school board to city council to county commission to state legislatures to the presidency. That's what the Republican Party has to stand for. And, frankly, the Republican Party hasn't stood for that.
Q: You always say that what the country needs is a candidate with big ideas. Is there anyone in either party who has the kind of big ideas that you have been talking about?
Gingrich: [John] Edwards has a lot of big ideas, but they're the wrong ones. The country needs solutions, and we need an ability to come to grips with how much change is involved in getting to those solutions. I'm deeply opposed to launching campaigns on late-night television. I think it just trivializes the whole process.
Q: You are heading an organization called American Solutions for Winning the Future that is going to have workshops at the end of the month that will affect, you've said, your decision about whether to run for president. Why?
Gingrich: I reached the conclusion over the last five or six years that the scale of change we needed was not achievable in the current partisan political process. I set out to create an organization which would hold workshops, develop solutions, reach out to Americans in both parties, outline dramatically different ways of doing things. And then we are trying to set up a dialogue about the scale of change [that] people should expect. There is nobody out there prepared to say, on the Democratic side, "If we don't win in Iraq, here's how big the mess is going to be," with the exception of Joe Lieberman. There is nobody out there on the Republican side who is prepared to say, "You know, we are going to have to do it differently." I mean, "Stay the course" is not a rational option.
Q: What is going to happen at the end of this coming-together?
Gingrich: This is not about 2008. Very large public movements take a while to get off the ground. The only circumstance I can imagine under which [my wife] Callista and I would be faced with a choice about running this year would be if there is a vacuum in October so deep and people began to be so afraid of Senator Clinton winning that you could actually see by the end of October a scale of resources that would let you be genuinely competitive. The odds are, that won't happen. I'm very comfortable with projects that take more than a sprint.
Q: You could imagine circumstances in which you might run for president in 2012?
Gingrich: I'd be the same age in '12 [that] Reagan was when he was elected in 1980. The most tempting thought about running next year is the idea of debating Senator Clinton. That would be fun.
Q: You have been critical of the Bush administration's handling of immigration and the war on terrorism. And you said that Republican candidates need to discuss the failures. Should the candidates be putting distance between themselves and Bush?
Gingrich: I think [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy said it very well when he said of the Chirac administration, "We need a clean break." There is no excuse for not controlling the border. There is no excuse for New Orleans being the mess it is. I think we ought to say these things are not right.
Q: Let's talk about Hillary Clinton. What do you think is her Achilles' heel?
Gingrich: I think the danger she runs is that in attempting to appease the left wing of her party she becomes unacceptable to the majority of Americans once they understand what she said she'd do. She is actually much more centrist than MoveOn.org. She is much tougher on military affairs than [her party's] Left. She is more rational, and I have very great respect for her as a hardworking professional. No Republican should think she is going to be easy to beat. But I have watched her now for a year be gradually pulled to the left. Her husband was too clever to do that.
Q: Do you want to run?
Gingrich: Not necessarily. I want to serve my country. I don't want to run as an act of habit. I have no great interest in going out to campaign. I have every interest in finding a generation of solutions. So if you said to me, would I be willing to serve my country, the answer is yes. But it won't bother me to spend all of next year running workshops and developing a new generation of ideas, and trying to be available for every American, not just Republicans.