Gingrich’s politics defined by big ideas, contradictions

With cameras rolling, Newt Gingrich sits on a couch in front of the U.S. Capitol with Nancy Pelosi, proclaiming the need for political action to reverse climate change.

"The dumbest thing I've done in the last four years," Gingrich now says of that 2008 TV spot with the liberal Democrat.

If it's difficult to square the Gingrich sitting next to Pelosi with the Gingrich who now declares himself a "true Reagan conservative," it is because his politics defy easy categorization.

A review of his nearly four decades on the public stage finds that Gingrich has acted as a conservative, a progressive, a liberal, a pragmatist, a dreamer, a bomb-thrower, a family values candidate who sometimes has family values – in sum, a contradiction who often can't be classified as anything other than Newt.

"The idea that they [Republicans] would pick him because he's a consistent conservative leader is a joke," said former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, R-Missouri, who served with Gingrich in the House. "If you look at the record, he is the least conservative of everyone in the race now."

But Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who dropped out of the Republican race and endorsed Gingrich, disputed that notion.

"I have no question Newt Gingrich has the heart of a conservative reformer," Perry said.

Gingrich is running out of time in his quest to convince conservatives he is the natural alternative to the man he dubbed the "Massachusetts Moderate," Mitt Romney. He won South Carolina a month ago, but the conservative momentum has shifted to Rick Santorum. Gingrich trails in polls in this Tuesday's primary states, Michigan and Arizona, with all-important Super Tuesday primaries ahead on March 6.

Part of the reason for his decline: The airwaves and Internet have been filled for two months with conservative politicians, columnists and talking heads denouncing Gingrich as philosophically unreliable.

This is the same man who helped found a group of young conservatives called the Conservative Opportunity Society in the early 1980s; who uses the word "conservative" almost as much as "I" in speeches; who has promoted tax cuts and national defense for decades.

Gingrich argues that the attacks come from the Republican establishment, with which he has always been at odds.

"We need to teach the Republican establishment a lesson," he said in a recent speech. "We are determined to rebuild America, not manage its decay."

Indeed, the former West Georgia College instructor has been teaching the GOP establishment a decades-long lesson, a posture that sometimes made him an outsider even when he was an insider. Just four years after leading his party to a historic takeover of the U.S. House, he was bounced from the speakership by some of the same House Republicans he helped get elected.

Another of Gingrich's contradictions is that he's a keen student of public opinion who also boldly goes where no public opinion has ever gone before: to colonies on the moon, tax breaks for personal computer purchases before they were widely available, individual mandates for health insurance long before Obama or even Romney brought them up. This says two things about Gingrich: His ideas sometimes war with the traditional conservative ideology he has long peddled, and the future is a very, very big place.

For clues to his unique politics and outlook, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution looked back at Gingrich's nearly 40 years in public life, using interviews, public records, and collections at the University of West Georgia and Georgia State University. The newspaper found a politician who has toed and even drawn the conservative line in some instances, and ignored it in others.

Rockefeller Republican

Early on, Gingrich was branded a "Rockefeller Republican," and he was anything but a conservative firebrand back then. In fact, in 1968 he was Southern regional director for the presidential campaign of Nelson Rockefeller, who was among the last of the GOP's social liberals.

When he ran for Congress in the mid-1970s against a conservative Democrat, Gingrich, who taught environmental studies, looked positively green to environmental groups.

He supported energy conservation and promoted research on alternative fuels, such as biomass. He also opposed construction of a controversial local dam backed by the Democratic incumbent.

His daughter, Jackie Gingrich Cushman, said her father took students on field trips and loved canoeing and hiking.

"I personally try not to use labels because people misinterpret how they are meant," she said, "but he's always loved the outdoors, he's always loved nature. He has always had that affinity for how we can be good caretakers of God's earth."

While a member of the Sierra Club during the 1980s, he opposed drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and embraced fuel efficiency and conservation. More than a decade after he took office, however, environmental groups would give Gingrich low ratings on their scorecards, and he now is probably the most vocal advocate in the race for increased drilling.

Endorsed by educators

Conservatives have long reviled the National Education Association as a teachers union, saying the NEA is a liberal roadblock to education reform. But in the mid-1970s, the local affiliate held a press conference to endorse Gingrich for Congress.

Kay Pippin, a former lobbyist for the NEA's Georgia's affiliate, said Gingrich's endorsement came after an interview and filling out a questionnaire with the group. She said the educators probably saw Gingrich as one of them.

"He was a teacher, an educator," Pippin said. "Obviously his political positions have gone considerably more to the right as time has gone along."

Carrollton Mayor Wayne Garner, a former Democratic state lawmaker who represented the district that includes West Georgia College, said, "When he first ran, he was pretty liberal, a progressive. A lot of people saw him as a 'pointy-headed intellectual' type."

Against deregulation

Known in later years as a crusader against big government, he put out a news release in 1976 voicing concerns over legislation to deregulate the aviation industry.

"At present," he wrote," decisions regarding fares and services must be approved by the Civil Aeronautics Board. This country is dependent on scheduled flights to all of its cities, both big and small. No airline executive should decide where to fly purely based on profit, rather than the public interest."

Gingrich worried that letting airlines set prices and decide where to fly would wipe out small carriers and bring "cutthroat competition" on profitable routes.

While he may have taken some stances not in lockstep with today's political right, Mel Steely, a Gingrich biographer and supporter, noted that the candidate also held some of the same conservative views that he campaigns on today. One is a unending support for a strong, aggressive national defense. Another is that tax cuts would spur economic growth.

When he finally won office in 1978, he called for a 33 percent cut in income taxes. He also attacked welfare programs, a common target over the years.

Randy Evans, Gingrich's lawyer, met Gingrich when Evans was a student at West Georgia. He said Gingrich was seen as a progressive in the 1970s because he talked about national, not local or Southern, issues.

"Only progressives talked about national issues," Evans said. "At his core, he was a conservative."

Newt the futurist

Gingrich's early years in Congress gave the nation its first glimpse of Newt the futurist.

He introduced legislation with then-Sen. Al Gore to set up a new federal "office of critical trends analysis."

He also introduced the "Northwest Ordinance for Space" to set up a government for Americans in space, including constitutional protections, a territorial government and, eventually, statehood.

Setting laws to govern space was imperative, he said, before other countries eclipsed America in the space race.

Gingrich also promised last month that he would build a permanent station on the moon by the end of his second term.

Such schemes put Gingrich's futurism on full display. He was long associated with the futurist Alvin Toffler and even wrote the foreword to Toffler's 1996 book, "Creating a New Civilization: The Politics of the Third Wave."

Restless leader

Gingrich's signal political accomplishment, the Republican takeover of the House in 1994, was the result of a highly disciplined campaign behind the "Contract With America." The contract promised tax cuts, a balanced budget and anti-regulation legislation backed by conservatives, and it swept the Republican majority into office.

Before and after that, however, Republican colleagues often criticized him for a lack of discipline.

Emory University political scientist Merle Black said Gingrich's inconsistencies long have befuddled members of his party.

"He had all these ideas and he appeared to be influenced by immediate circumstances, so he would move the party in one direction on one day and the next day in the opposite direction," Black said.

The professor notes that Gingrich became more conservative as he sought party leadership positions.

"That's not necessarily to say he was conservative on every issue as it came up," Black said. "But I don't think he was bothered as much by his inconsistency. Other people around him were."

Even in the '90s Gingrich was talking about health insurance mandates, something conservatives now consider akin to socialism. "I am for people – individuals, just like automobile insurance – individuals having insurance and being required to have health insurance," he said at the time.

He later said his comments were a response to the Clinton administration's health care plan, but he repeated his support for mandates long after Clinton had left office.

More recently, Gingrich has been criticized for calling Republican U.S. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's Medicare overhaul plan "right-wing social engineering."

Talent said, "With friends like that, who needs the left?"

Gingrich later apologized to Ryan.

'Conservative compass'

Recent Santorum ads questioned Gingrich's conservative standing: "Like Romney, Gingrich supported the Wall Street bailout, job-killing cap and trade, and radical healthcare mandates," the ad said. "Gingrich even supports giving some illegals amnesty."

But Susan Meyers, Southeast spokeswoman for Gingrich's campaign, calls her boss "a conservative icon."

"His conservative compass pulls right every day he wakes up in the morning," she said. "Americans know he cut Washington down to size once before and can do it again if given the chance as president. Romney, Santorum and Paul can all talk the talk of being conservative, but only Newt has walked the walk."

Pollster Matt Towery, who chaired Gingrich's re-election campaign in 1992, said Gingrich is a man of a million ideas who often forgets to explain their appeal to conservatives. To the public, he said, they sometimes don't make sense.

For instance, Towery said, Gingrich talked about providing tax credits for personal computers before most people had them. His seemingly futuristic view of space, Towery said, was partly a response to the technological breakthroughs and excitement associated with the 1960s Apollo program.

"To be fair to him, some of them are smart ideas that would stimulate the economy," Towery said. "But when it comes across as a colony on the moon, it sounds wacky."

Towery believes Gingrich is the most conservative candidate in the Republican race.

"I know the visceral reaction he has to things that are not conservative," he said. "When he appears to be moderate, it is when he's popping off ideas. But I think he's grown increasingly conservative in the past 10 years."