Decision time. Potential republican presidential candidates pondering possibilities, counting costs. Among them, a former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. We're talking with republican Newt Gingrich on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: There's a noticeable increase in possible presidential candidates visiting Iowa these days, most of them exploring but not declaring candidacies. Our guest today is one of them. Earlier this month in Atlanta, announcing a fundraising campaign, or a committee I should say, called "Newt Explore 2012" considering a 2012 presidential run. Newt Gingrich, now 67 years old, spent 20 years representing Georgia's 6th district in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the early 1990s, developing what republicans called a contract with America, electing a republican majority to Congress in 1994 ending 40 years of democratic control and making him Speaker of the House. Mr. Gingrich, welcome back to Iowa Press. You've been here before.
Gingrich: It's great to be back here.
Borg: It's nice to have you. And across the table I think two people you know well, Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Glover: Speaker Gingrich, let's talk a little bit about the potential of you seeking the republican nomination in 2012. Tell us where you are in that whole process of making the decision.
Gingrich: Well, we do have a Web site, newtexplore2012.com, we're getting a pretty good bit of support all across the country. We have gone out in a methodical way, just as we're here in Iowa this weekend, recently I was in South Carolina, I was in New Hampshire just basically testing the waters and so far the waters are pretty warm. I feel pretty good about this. And I think probably within four weeks or five weeks we will have an announcement. Callista and I have got one or two more things we have to get organized in terms of our businesses because we run four small businesses and we are reorganizing them and our hope would be that within four or five weeks we would have a positive announcement but we can't get to that decision until we finish up these last projects.
Glover: It sounds to me like you're pretty far away down the road.
Gingrich: Well, I think it's fair to say that we're a lot closer to running than to not running at this state.
Glover: And what are the factors that will go into that final decision? Just clearing up business things?
Gingrich: Well, I think part of it is the final assessment of support, I mean, to make sure that -- when you have people that are as formidable as Mitt Romney who can raise a very substantial amount of money or Governor Huntsman who is personally extraordinarily wealthy. You have to be able to, if you were to come out of a middle class background you have to be able to raise a lot of money from a lot of friends. That is a piece of it. And I think the other part is putting together a team that is capable of being competitive because you don't run for President by yourself, I mean, you have to build an entire system to do it because it's such a big, big project. Those things are part of what -- the final review would include that.
Henderson: In 2010 there was an appetite among republicans for a fresh face and some of the most celebrated candidates in the last cycle were newcomers on the scene. In that environment, how does someone with your experience engage voters and convince them that you should be the nominee?
Gingrich: I can tell you in Iowa the perfect answer. You study carefully Terry Branstad. I mean, in a year when people were looking for new faces, he was the new face they wanted and they actually valued his experience, they valued the fact that he had been governor, they valued the fact that he knew how to create jobs and how to deal with a tough budget. I think Terry will tell you, as he has told me, that it ended up being a net advantage that he could bring experience. We've tried youth and inexperience in the White House, we're watching a President flounder on Libya, we're watching him flounder on Obamacare, we're watching him go to Brazil and praise the Brazilians for drilling offshore while he refuses to drill in the United States and then tell the Brazilians he wants to be their customer which most Americans think is exactly backwards. We'd like to be producing things to sell to Brazil. And so I think people will have a really clear contrast between somebody who balanced the federal budget, cut taxes, created jobs, brought unemployment down to four percent versus somebody who doesn't seem to be able to master the job.
Borg: You said floundering in Libya. Based on your experience, that was a term that you used and Kay used here, based on your experience assess the U.S. involvement in that civil war.
Gingrich: Well, it's a mess.
Borg: The war is a mess?
Gingrich: Well, no, the American involvement is a mess. Civil wars are always a mess but there's no -- first of all, this is entirely a matter of choice. We didn't have to get involved. There is no standard, there's no Obama standard here. His humanitarian standard could apply to Sudan, it could apply to Zimbabwe, it could apply to Syria, it could apply to North Korea, it could apply to, you know, there's no standard he can apply here, this was a choice. I said very early on that the Reagan, Eisenhower model would have been to encourage those who want freedom, to find ways to get support to them without U.S. forces, to go to the Egyptians, the Moroccans, the Jordanians, the Iraqis, find ways to help them but not to get directly involved. Then on March 3rd the President goes out and says Gaddafi must go. Well, this is not some opinion by somebody on a talk show, this is the President of the United States. Now we're told, oh, well the real goal is not to get Gaddafi out, the real goal is a humanitarian no-fly zone, we're going to somehow stop the bloodshed. This is all nonsense.
Borg: You haven't mentioned consultation with Congress.
Gingrich: Well, he doesn't, you know, he cites as his authorities the United Nations and the Arab League and I went back and looked in the Constitution, I couldn't find the Arab League listed anywhere in the Constitution. He didn't cite Congress because the truth is he didn't consult Congress. He briefed Speaker Boehner just before they actually began moving but that was a briefing, not a consultation. This is a very real problem because you have a coalition that is very confused, you have the Germans refusing to participate, you have the British and the French eager to help but that aren't much military power, you have confusion between the French and the Americans over what the goals are and you have a pretty tough-minded dictator who, frankly, if he hunkers down in the cities you can't use air power to defeat him.
Glover: Speaker, I'd like to go through some of the weaknesses that your critics point to with you. They say that you bring some personal and political baggage to a race. You've been married three times, you've had messy divorces, you're campaigning in a state where the Republican Party is dominated by Christian conservatives. How do you get past that?
Gingrich: I think you don't get past it, I think you tell the truth and I think you share your life's experiences and you admit that you have had weaknesses and that you have had failures and that you've gone to God to seek forgiveness and to seek reconciliation and then people make a decision and they look at the totality of my life, I'm 67, Callista and I have a great marriage, we have two wonderful daughters, we have two grandchildren who are terrific and people have to decide on balance. Am I a person that they would respect and trust in the White House?
Glover: And as I am around politics longer and longer, and it's been a while now, I'm convinced that it is all about running for class presidents, who voters like and who voters don't like. Likeability is an issue. Are you likeable enough to be elected president?
Gingrich: Well, that will be up to the people of the United States, not up to me but, Mike, I don't know that I agree with that as a historian. Richard Nixon didn't get elected because he was likeable. Ronald Reagan didn't lose to Gerry Ford in 1976 because he was unlikeable. Ronald Reagan I think would have told you that he ultimately got elected not because he was more likeable than Howard Baker or the George H.W. Bush or the John Connolly but because he stood for a set of values and a set of principles and a set of beliefs. Reagan once said he didn't change much but the world came around. And I think that sometimes principles matter more -- I don't think it's a class presidency, I think it is in fact a question of one level of what kind of America are we going to become? How are we going to solve the very real problems we are faced with? And who do we think has both the right principles and the personal capacity to execute those principles in the hardest job in the world?
Henderson: Another venerable republican in Iowa, you mentioned Terry Branstad earlier, is Chuck Grassley. He has been winning elections in this state since the 1950s. This past week he said among those who are considering running for president he considers only two or three of them qualified. In light of that statement, what would you say are the qualifications for running for president? And do you have them?
Gingrich: Well, first of all, this is the most open society in the world and anybody is qualified to run if they are 35 years old, legally a citizen and not a convicted felon. And we have had people of a very wide range run so I think to run is not the issue. The question is what does it take to be president? I think the most important thing is that you know what you believe and you are prepared to live and die by what you believe. I mean, if you look at Lincoln who only had two years as a freshman congressman but who had thought very profoundly and very deeply about the issues of his generation, who arrived I think having to learn an immense amount and then learned at a rate that no other president could match, maybe the only true genius ever to be in the White House, you look at General Eisenhower who had grown up through the system and who was a national hero long before he was president and brought a totally different set of skills, I think that the successful presidents change and evolve what they are doing in the context of the times but do not change the core principles and don't change the core beliefs ...
Glover: This is a pretty conservative field. It seems at times as though the candidates who are out there potentially running are competing with each other to see who can be the most conservative. The Republican Party in this state is very conservative, more than 60% caucus goers in the last cycle described themselves as evangelicals. Is it a danger that the party could move so far to the right you can't elect a president?
Gingrich: It's a danger, I don't think it's likely to happen but it's a danger. The issues I think we ought to focus on are issues that have huge majorities. I favor American exceptionalism as a value. Gallup says that is an 80% position.
Borg: What does that mean?
Gingrich: It means that the Declaration of Independence really matters. It means that being endowed by your creator is a political fact. It means that being an American implies the right to pursue happiness, it implies individual responsibility. That leads you to the Constitution. And ironically the rise of the Tea Party movement, you know, has really led to a reassertion of the Constitution as a document which leads you to the Tenth Amendment, for example, and returning power to the state and local governments. And I go around the country talking to people all the time and, in fact, I've been down at the statehouse here saying, what if we had a platform in 2012 that has a contract with America? What if one of the seven bills in the contract was a genuine Tenth Amendment implementation act? What if we really return power and resources back to Iowa? That would be an enormous shift from what we've been doing.
Borg: And how would you apply that philosophy to a real issue like jobs, the economy?
Gingrich: I'll give you a specific example. Implicit in the right to pursue happiness and the fact that you are endowed by your Creator with certain rights is a responsibility. Pursuit is an active verb, it implies a work ethic which goes all the way back to Captain John Smith saying in Jamestown in 1607 if you don't work you won't eat, which he actually said to the aristocracy who wanted to pay and not work. I would propose a fundamental reform of unemployment compensation. I think it's wrong to pay people 99 weeks for doing nothing and I think what we ought to do is establish a learning program, a job training program and say, look, if you can't find a job and you need help, fine, but as long as we're paying you you're going to actually take a course and we're going to connect you to a business that is trying to hire people and you're going to spend your time that we're subsidizing learning. Now, that is a fundamentally different program than the passive unemployment compensation we have today.
Henderson: In 2007 you were exploring the idea of running for president and ultimately didn't choose to do so in 2008. Why is this year different?
Gingrich: I had come to the conclusion in 2004 and 2005 that the scale of our problems was getting so big that you needed a new generation of solutions that were profoundly deeper and more fundamental than anything the political system was capable of describing and I founded American Solutions in part to develop those and to explore them and to carry them out at the state and local level where we have 513,000 elected officials and we only have 537 elected officials in Washington. And I concluded in October of 2007 that we weren't far enough down the road, we didn't have enough fundamentally new approaches and fundamentally new solutions and that we needed three or four more years to really go out and develop a new generation of ideas. And I think part of what you'll see, if I do end up running, is a very ideal oriented campaign and a campaign that has a series of very bold and very different proposals that we really had not developed and flushed out back in 2007.
Glover: And the republican primary is just the first step in this election. The goal, after you have a candidate, is to beat Barack Obama. Given all the tools that a sitting president has, the ability to command media, the ability to command attention, the ability to set the agenda, the ability to raise money, realistically tell me how you get a sitting president.
Gingrich: Well, first of all, President Obama will be very formidable, nobody should run thinking this is easy. But he has two fundamental flaws. One is a performance flaw. This is a bad economy, the deficit is horrible, the fact is that we don’t control the border, the fact is that our foreign policy is a mess and so you look at the totality at the performance level and he's got a lot to defend. And the fact is that his values are way to the left of the average American and they show up in odd ways. The fact that he was relying on the Arab League, for example, is very different from what most Americans think a president should do, the fact that he went to Brazil and said, I'm really glad you're drilling and I'd love to be your customer but that is not what the American people want. They want a president who is out selling American goods, not running around the world buying Brazilian goods. So, I think there are places where you can, for example, an American energy policy is a 79 to 16 position, if you say to people should we have a policy to create energy in the U.S., by 79 to 16 they say yes. Well, Obama has to defend the 16. You look at what he has done to the coal industry, you look at what he's done to oil and gas, this is an anti-American energy administration and that kills jobs, raises the price of living and, of course, with the current price of gasoline makes him directly vulnerable as being out of sync with the average American.
Henderson: Are you the best foil to present against Barack Obama given the propensity of Americans to like to promote a state level chief executive, a governor, given the desire on some part in your party to nominate a business person or someone with a business background? Is it wise to nominate a former professor who is an author to run against a former professor who is an author?
Gingrich: Well, it depends on whether or not you think winning the debates in October matters. It strikes me that going up against Barack Obama is going to come down to what Margaret Thatcher used to say when she said that first you win the argument, then you win the vote. And I'm not arguing for me as the only person who can do this but I am saying have somebody -- having somebody who philosophically and practically can be on the same stage -- take the deficits, it is a fact that as Speaker I led the effort that led to four straight balanced budgets and paid off $405 billion in debt, the longest period of balanced budgets in over a generation. It is a fact that we cut taxes for the first time in 16 years including the largest capital gains tax cut in history and that we did bring down unemployment from 5.4% to 4%. So, I think you could see a Gingrich versus Obama range of choices that would be very wide.
Glover: How do you distinguish yourself from the other republican candidates because that is the first hurdle you have to get over, you have to draw some distinctions with your republican rivals before you can worry about Barack Obama?
Gingrich: Well, first of all, virtually all of them are friends of mine. I want to be clear. We have to run, as a group we have to run with the understanding that the morning after the nominating process is over we'd better be on the same team because it's going to take all of us to beat Barack Obama. And most of them actually are genuinely friends of mine. I've known Haley Barbour since the Reagan years, I've known Mitch Daniels since the Reagan years, I'm very fond of Rick Santorum who I served with in the House a long time ago and you go down the list. I used to visit with Mitt Romney when he was governor. So, I think there's no reason -- Huckabee and I are good friends and I first, Governor Palin told me she used to take GOPAC tapes years ago when she was a local -- so there's no hostility here. There will be an honest debate and an honest opportunity. I think my job is not to debate other republicans, my job is to communicate with the people of Iowa and the people of America and outline a vision and a set of very practical, doable solutions and if they decide those are the right ideas and I'm the right person they'll pick me. But I don't see it as competitive in a sense of me versus them, I think it's me communicating with you.
Borg: And Iowa is first at what you have to do. How do you tailor a campaign that is unique to Iowa?
Gingrich: I think Iowa tailors the campaign, I don't think you do. I think you start with 99 counties and you start with going to see individuals ...
Borg: But you say, you face facts about what Iowa is when you say Iowa tailors the campaign?
Gingrich: You go out and you visit with people. I mean, Iowa is totally different from New Hampshire which is totally different from South Carolina. One of the great things about our system is you eventually find people who have an ability to go to a variety of environments and talk with remarkable different people. Callista went to Luther College in Decorah, she is from western Wisconsin, a small town of 1600 called Whitehall. We have a number of friends who are Iowans. I've been coming to Iowa I think since the early 80s. I may have even come to Iowa before Terry was governor, the first time. And so we're very comfortable criss-crossing the state, seeing people, talking with people and I think that -- I love coming to the state fair, I have been to the state fair I think six times now and I like bringing my grandkids to the state fair and they like going around eating everything we let them eat.
Glover: And you were involved in the last election and there was a campaign in the state to remove three justices from the state's Supreme Court because of their role in a decision legalizing same-sex marriage. You gave some money to that effort. Could that money have any strings with it?
Gingrich: No, none.
Glover: What were you trying to accomplish?
Gingrich: Let me just say that, for example, through American Solutions we reached out to 5800 local campaigns across the country with no strings. We have tried to help elect people, I think we were part of a huge sweep that occurred at the state legislative level, the largest swing in modern times. There are now more republican state legislators than any time since 1925 and I think we had something to do with that. But one of the things that really got me re-engaged in public policy was the 9th Circuit Court decision in 2002 that said that One Nation Under God is unconstitutional in the Pledge of Allegiance in public school and I thought that was such a totally alien to America decision, so fundamentally historically wrong that I wrote a book and we made a movie called Rediscovering God in America. The Iowa case is just a continuation of the same problem. I taught a course at the University of Georgia Law School, I'm a historian, they allowed me to come and be a guest lecturer and I taught a course on judicial overreach and on the whole notion that if you go back and look at Jefferson, Jefferson vehemently opposed the idea of judicial supremacy, he said it is an absurdity and I think when you have judges, whether it is in Iowa or any place else in this country, when you have judges who decide that they can re-write the Constitution based on their opinions you have a system that is fundamentally out of check.
Glover: Well, do you support going after the remaining four justices?
Glover: And how will you go about -- will you be actively involved in that, give some money?
Gingrich: Well, I don't know, it depends on when it comes up and what the circumstances are but I believe that the justices who believe that their personal view outweighs the voters of their state, the governor and the legislature of their state are fundamentally acting outside the American system. I think the American system was one of a balance of power. I think this whole modern -- it starts with the Warren Court in 1958, 1959, this whole modern notion of judicial supremacy is false and I think that that's going to be one of the major issues in 2012 and beyond is whether you want judges dictating the nature of American or you want judges who accept the law and who have respect for the legislative and executive branches.
Henderson: In late January you came to Des Moines and gave a speech in which you denounced the big city folk's attitudes about corn based ethanol. The Wall Street Journal then wrote sort of a scathing editorial criticizing you, accusing you of being a panderer. Are you guilty as charged?
Gingrich: I voted for gasohol, as it was then called, in 1984. Ronald Reagan signed it. I voted for it again I believe in 1986. Ronald Reagan signed it. It was part of a general response that said, we need to have every kind of American energy we can have. Callista and I were out at the Reagan Library for the 100th anniversary of Reagan's birth, we had lunch with Secretary of State George Schultz who said, at one point he said, how many times do we have to get hit over the head with a two by four to figure out that we need a national energy policy? Now, I believe that biofuels are a piece of that just as I believe, you know, I helped launch Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less. The irony to me of the Wall Street Journal editorial is I was for everything the Wall Street Journal was for and I was also for ethanol. But -- so it's not that I'm confused about it, I think their position -- go look at what they say about tax breaks for oil, they defend them. So it's not a question that there's this magic world where the only tax break in the country goes to people who produce ethanol.
Glover: When you were Speaker there was a government shutdown, had a showdown with then President Clinton. It looks as though there is a danger of a shutdown now. There are some disagreements in Congress over cutting and spending and all that kind of stuff. What advice would you give republicans in Congress heading into this potential shutdown?
Gingrich: I would urge them to do everything they can to get the President to sign very large changes but not flinch if the President tries to blackmail them into surrender. They can not walk in the room and say, we're so afraid of a shutdown that we'll give you whatever you want to avoid it nor should they walk in the room and say, we're eager to have a shutdown. And I try to remind conservatives and republicans, the shutdown did not hurt us politically. No republican House had been re-elected since 1928. After the shutdown we were re-elected and we were re-elected while Bill Clinton was winning the presidency. So, it's a little hard for me to understand why there's this mythology that this shutdown was a terrible mistake. The fact is we lost a net of two seats from the number we won in 1994 even while the democrats were winning the presidency.
Borg: Kay, quick question.
Henderson: So, Bill Clinton's re-election had nothing to do with the public impression of the shutdown?
Gingrich: No, I think Bill Clinton's re-election had to do with the choice of two candidates and whether or not you could win the debate in October. That's why I think the debate in October really matters.
Borg: We have to leave it there. Thanks so much for being with us today. We'll be back next weekend at the usual Iowa Press times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.