On Monday, I interviewed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich by phone as he was walking around Manhattan between scheduled events. As agreed upon in advance with his publicist, half of our 20 minutes would be dedicated to general questions regarding the current political and electoral situation, including his potential 2012 candidacy, and the other half would be a discussion of his new book, To Save America. Below is the transcript of the first half.
As regular 538 readers know, I’m bullish on the former Speaker’s chances to win the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, and think he could be formidable in the general election if nominated. I won’t repeat my reasons here, but I will return to this question of his potential 2012 candidacy after the end of the second part of this two-part interview, which will be published this coming Monday.
Fivethirtyeight.com: As early as right after Obama’s election you sort of hinted to Sean Hannity that would very much consider running for president in 2012. So I guess I would ask you to give us a status update on where your thinking is about a candidacy for the presidency.
Newt Gingrich: Calista and I will make a global decision probably in February or March. We are methodically trying to think through what we’re going to do. We run four small companies and we have a lot of other activities. So we’re taking steps so that if we do decide to run everything will be in order.
And I have to say that the failure of the Obama Administration in practical, real terms—jobs, terrorism and other issues—and the radicalism of the Obama Administration, I think make both me and Calista more inclined to say, “Yea, looking at it in the context of what is our duty as citizens, how do we live that out?”
538: Let’s assume you did run, for the sake of argument. Because you have to keep a platform in simple terms these days, what might be your three or four talking points if you run?
NG: This actually fits very directly into why I wrote To Save America, because I think the three key questions we have to discuss in the next three years are: What kind of people are we, what do we have to do to compete with China and India successfully, and what threatens us and what do we have to do to be safe? And I think those three things are the core, big decision points that America’s faced with that we all have to have the courage to talk though.
These two elections—2010 and 2012—are different from any elections in modern election history. This is much more like 1800 or 1828 or 1860 or 1932 in that it is a moment of fundamentally redefining America. And we clearly have a very left-wing, secular-socialist machine trying to create an America fundamentally different than anything which we have historically been as a country.
And I think the real referendum of 2010 and 2012 is, Is that really where you want to go and do you really think it will work? And I think on both of those test questions this administration is going to lose badly.
538: Conversely, let’s assume you decide not to run or you run but fail to win the nomination. Is there a particular candidate among the commonly expected field of contenders—and I’d love you to name only one, but if you have to identify two or three—who you…[Gingrich could see where I was going and cut me off here]
NG: I have many friends who have been very successful as governors, for example, whether it’s Tim Pawlenty or Haley Barbour or Bobby Jindal or Mitch Daniel or Rick Perry. At the same time I think the most interesting governor in America today is Chris Christie. What he’s doing in New Jersey is just historic.
And then there are other folks I admire a great deal. John Thune, who I worked with both in the House and in his role as a senator, I think is a very attractive person. So I think there are a number of folks out there who are going to offer new ideas and new approaches. And frankly, if John Kasich wins and if Meg [Whitman] wins in California, I think you could easily see people of that caliber; when you’re governor of Ohio or California, you suddenly become a potential candidate also. So I think we’ll have a number of smart and very capable people.
And part of the reason I wrote To Save America was to begin to outline a fundamental argument. Two-thirds of the book is a series of proposed solutions so that we both have an ability to distinguish ourselves from the Left and we have an ability to say to the country, “Here’s what we would do that would be right, not just what they’re doing that’s wrong.”
538: It’s interesting you mention that because the GOP has lost the national popular vote in four of past five presidential elections, and in 2004 Bush won by about 2.5 points. You talk about your hero Ronald Reagan, and even George H.W. Bush, they put pretty good numbers in the Eighties. What’s it going to take for Republicans to win a national election in a way they really haven’t been able to do now for almost 20 years?
NG: Well, a couple things. And I say this having been very active in the 1980, 1984 and 1988 [presidential] campaigns, and then of course in 1994 with the Contract With America. I believe, first of all, you have to pick large issues that create a clear choice so people see that there’s a real difference. This is what Reagan meant in February of 1975 at CPAC when he said we need to have bold colors, not pale pastels. And I think this is very, very important at a time when the media is largely on the Left you have to be consciously aware of the danger that they’re always going to be trying to distort whatever you’re doing. So we need very big choices.
Second, I think you have to have somebody who’s articulate and coherent who’s capable of waging an education campaign. You start off in any kind of debate in a country dominated by a left-wing media, you always start out with the Left trying to define the issue against you and then you have to work your way back to what the real issue is. And I think the more articulate, and the clearer and more certain our candidate is the better off we’re going to be in terms of winning in 2012.
Third, you have to be prepared to take the argument everywhere. You cannot write off anywhere. I think it’s very significant that Chris Christine did better in urban areas in New Jersey than any Republican in a generation–carried counties no Republican has carried in a generation. I think it’s very significant that Bob McDonnell had over 40 meetings with Asian Americans, and over 100 meetings with Hispanic Americans, and ran a statewide ad about an African American entrepreneur. He ran a campaign that reached out to everybody—on very conservative principles, but nonetheless reached out to everybody and the end result was that he got 59 percent of the vote, the most by any Republican candidate for governor in Virginia history.
So, I’m an optimist that with the right approach and the right enthusiasm and the right dedication, we can be competitive almost anywhere.
538: OK, let’s turn the 2010 midterms. Nobody on the planet knows more about how to construct a winning Republican congressional message and majority than you. I would like to ask you to compare the political environment right now with how you recall it with six months leading up to 1994 cycle, and things about it are similar and what things are different?
NG: Well I think the Republicans are not as strong today as they were in 1994 because we had the legacy of Reagan still. And I think people just generally thought that we were in better shape than they are right now.
On the other hand, the Democrats are in dramatically worse shape right now. This is the worst unemployment since the Great Depression. The president, to my surprise the other day, tried to make the case that going from 9.7 to 9.9 percent unemployment was actually good, that that was positive news. I don’t know how good an orator he thinks he is, but I don’t think you can talk your way into that one for most Americans.
And so, from my perspective I think that they’re going to be going into an election where people are paying attention because the economy is so bad, where they’re going to get very bad marks for having run up a huge decifit, and where the average American is paying attention because of the economy. And what they’re seeing out there is a very radical administration that they don’t like. And I think it’s that combination that is so dangerous for the Democrats.
I go all over the country making speeches and I am just amazed at the degree of agreement that we’re getting almost everywhere that these guys are not acceptable, and that they are literally not representing the kind of future for America that we want.
538: Hey, there’s a new poll out this week that indicates that maybe the Republican momentum the last six months has tailed off a little bit, that maybe the Democrats are coming back a little bit. Is it possible the Republicans, say around the time of the Scott Brown victory, peaked a little too early this cycle?
NG: I don’t think you can cleverly calculate things like this. History is bigger than you are. Politics and governing are much more like sailing than they are like operating a powerboat. You’re at the whim of tides and of winds and of things that are so much bigger than you. You’ve got to take advantage every morning as best you can.
I personally don’t believe there’s any great bounce back for Democrats right now. I haven’t seen anything that indicates that they’re doing dramatically better. I think that, if anything, they temporary lull in the economic problems because we borrowed and spent well over a trillion dollars in a very short time and when you do that you’re bound to have some side effects. But I think it’s also clear to most Americans that that’s not sustainable.
We’ll have a little better sense of this tomorrow after we see what happens in Pennsylvania and Satruday in Hawai’i. But if we in fact pick up both of those seats, I think it will be pretty hard to make the case that Democrats are having a good year.
538: I want to ask you a couple questions about the Republican Party and the conservative base in the wake of Obama’s victory in 2008. You took a lot of criticism for not coming out immediately for [US House NY23 conservative candidate] Doug Hoffman. Do you regret that decision, Looking back, do you regret not backing him?
NG: I don’t care about how it affected me. Look, I’ve been around a long time. I have a deep, passionate commitment to party building, and as a general rule I try to endorse and support the local nominee. What I was told at the time was that [Republican nominee Dede] Scozzafava had won the support of the local parties and that she was their choice. And therefore I did what I’ve done since 1960, when I was a volunteer in high school for the Nixon-Lodge campaign, and that was a pattern that helped build the George Republican Party and helped build a national majority.
It turns out that I was being misinformed. She was much more radical. Once you got into her record it was clear she was much too radical. She was the one candidate that Mike Long and the conservatives said they would not support. And the national movement came together in a very decisive way and defeated her. I promptly did everything I could to help Doug Hoffman, and I think Doug would tell you that I’ve been helpful to him right through the last weekend of the campaign, and I’ve been helpful to him since then.
Everywhere I go with American Solutions we meet with tea party leaders. And I think there’s a general understanding of what happened and how and why. And I think if you’ve been active as long as I have, and you’re willing to be as aggressive and risk-taking I have, you’re going to have a bad day occasionally.
538: Speaking of tea partiers, do you think they’re for the Republican Party. I assume so, but are there any potential complications that movement causes?
NG: I think the tea party movement is good for America. The tea party movement is creating an arena for an entire new generation of activists who would never have become active Republicans and who are motivated by citizenship and by a genuine, deep desire to do something postiive.
Everywhere we go with American Solutions through our town hall meetings we spend time with tea party leaders. We had 55 Louisiana tea party leaders at a meeting in New Orleans, to give you an example. My experience is that they are remarkably serious and sincere people. They are thoughtful. Many of them are studying the Constitution and taking very seriously what’s happening to their country.
I also believe that in 2012, unless the Republicans do something really foolish, that the tea party people will be in the fight in a coalition to beat Obama. The real test for Republicans will be if we win in 2012 and fail to deliver. I think at that point you’d see some movement toward a third party. But I believe in 2012 virtually everybody who does not want a secular-socialist future is going to be unified behind beating Obama.
NOTE: At this point I asked Gingrich what “something foolish” might be, but the Speaker had to put me on hold a few minutes to take a call from one of his daughters. When he came back I asked the question again and he answered it, but foolishly I forgot for a minute or so to turn my tape recorder back on. From my notes I can safely report that he said he was talking about the party nominating somebody “totally unacceptable” to the tea partiers or the conservative base. I asked him if he had any particular candidates in mind that met that definition, but he said he did not or at least did not name anyone. I used the moment to ask him about two potential presidential candidates he failed to mention in the long parade of possible GOP contenders he listed earlier in the interview: Ron Paul and Sarah Palin.
Recollecting from my typed notes and memory as best I can, Gingrich said he was supportive of Palin’s selection as vice presidential running mate in 2008 and recommended to the McCain campaign that they select her. He said some nice things about Paul but noted that his support tends to top out “around 8 or 9 percent.” I do not want to imply to readers, and do not infer from Gingrich’s tone or words, that he is less enamored with the idea of Palin or Paul as the 2012 nominee, or at least compared to the other names he mentioned. It may very well be that in the earlier answer he simply forgot to discuss them, but leave it to the readers to make what they wish of that omission.