news commentary
November 06, 2009


Gingrich gets all Reaganesque
by Bruce Rodgers

Could the expected resurgence of the Republican Party come from conservative wisdom delivered by familiar faces — one living, one dead?

Newt Gingrich appearance before a very friendly crowd at the Dole Institute of Politics on Nov. 4 in Lawrence wasn’t exactly a stump speech. The former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives gave little indication he was again running for elected office. However, his speech had the flourish, polish and statesman-like execution of a politician on the hunt. Mixed in were folksy reminiscences about his Kansas roots — Gingrich’s father was stationed at Fort Riley — and basketball-loving praise of Kansas University’s “Rock Chalk Jayhawk” chant.

The Kansas Republican delegation was complimented by name and former Congresswoman Jan Meyers (who was in attendance) was particularly singled out as one “who deserved a great deal of credit” for helping the Republicans pass welfare reform in 1996. When in office, Meyers was considered a moderate Republican.

Former Speaker of the House and Republican leader Newt Gingrich (photo by Chance Dibben, courtesy of The University Daily Kansan ®)

Gingrich’s nod to moderation was balanced out by his frequent appeals to conservatives. “Conservatives need to get serious about America’s future,” he said, and need to counter the “radical regime in Congress” making change “with little Republican input.”

Yet, Gingrich’s speech was thoroughly grounded in Ronald Reagan’s “big tent” philosophy of casting a wide net for Republican supporters and in Reagan’s avoidance of criticizing fellow Republicans. No blame was given for the election of a Democrat in New York’s 23rd U.S. House District after conservatives abandoned the Republican nominee in that supposedly safe Republican district. Gingrich brushed off any belief that the Republican Party was in disarray and that conservative primary election challenges would fracture the Party. The word “opportunity” seemed more appropriate to Gingrich, calling the time one of being on the “edge … at the great learning periods of the United States.”

He said three major questions face America: Who are we? How do we create prosperity? Who wants to hurt us?

Each one of those questions would have easily fit into Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign — the answers being: We are the greatest nation; cut taxes and get government out of the way, and defeat the Soviets. In 2009, with Gingrich possibly eyeing a presidential race, the only change would be substituting radical fundamentalist Islam for the Soviet Union as the nation’s greatest threat.

“We are in substantial danger and refuse to acknowledge how hard and complicated this will be,” said Gingrich, later referring to overcoming the danger to America as “30 years of a difficult struggle.”

Gingrich conveyed many of his points by reaching back into American history, invoking the names of founding fathers and including his professorial interpretation of the Declaration of Independence. He called it “a political document, a power from God,” where personal sovereignty is on “loan to the government.”

The phrase “pursuit of happiness” points to the founding fathers’ belief in the work ethic, said Gingrich, and not an “entitlement” from government. He refuted any belief that “The happiest people are unfairly happy and the unhappy people are being cheated.”

To Gingrich, the government in power in Washington can’t see the truth. Foreclosures are happening because people bought homes they couldn’t afford, failure of education is as much an individual’s problem — “If you don’t learn, you shouldn’t get a diploma,” he said.

He called the current health care reform legislation “ludicrous.” And Gingrich asked, “Are we going to be a secular, socialist European state or are we endowed by our Creator?”

While Gingrich recounted the triumphs of Washington, Jefferson and Thomas Paine, President Obama was compared to former President Jimmy Carter, who, Gingrich said, would never have used Reagan's term “evil empire” to describe the Soviet Union or command Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” in Berlin.

“Carter wouldn’t have said that,” said Gingrich. “Reagan understood the term, ‘We win.’ With ‘evil empire’, a Western leader finally told the truth.” He chided both political parties for “the absence of grand strategic thinking” in facing national security issues.

Like most of President Reagan’s speeches, Gingrich’s Dole Institute presentation lacked any policy specifics or initiatives. It was a big picture delivery, very much in tune to Reagan’s leadership approach.

Words such as “public service,” “community,” “citizen involvement” or “diplomacy” were not uttered by Gingrich that night. Neither were such phrases as “corporate responsibility” or “Wall Street bailout” bought up. Yet, in what could be interpreted as a clear nod to social conservatives, he charged, “Neither party understands that maybe the problem (facing America) is cultural.”

After the event, a young audience member commented to me that he thought what Gingrich said was “very nationalistic.”

Yes, Gingrich did get that philosophy across, as did Reagan.

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at