The Compromise Of A Conservative

It's hard to take Newt Gingrich seriously when he says he might run for president. In the nearly nine years since he resigned as Republican speaker of the House, Gingrich has floated the idea of a presidential candidacy numerous times, almost always when on TV to promote a new book. But he has never taken the plunge.

And so in recent weeks, as Gingrich has once more made rumblings about running for president, experienced Newt watchers wondered what, exactly, the former speaker was selling this time. The answer: American Solutions for Winning the Future, a Ging-rich-led advocacy group that launches this week, promising new solutions to old problems like immigration, education and health care. Gingrich has promised to spend the coming weeks seriously considering the viability of a presidential campaign. But few Republicans are holding their breath. At this late hour, it seems Gingrich couldn't possibly still launch a viable presidential campaign.

Or could he? One sign that Gingrich may be more serious than people think: he's been talking down his party's chances in 2008. Earlier this month he made headlines when he suggested that Republicans should "make a clean break" with the Bush administration and that the odds were "probably 80 to 20" Democrats would win the White House in a little more than a year's time. Asked by NEWSWEEK LAST week to assess the political liabilities facing Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton, Gingrich seemed more interested in warning his party not to underestimate her: "I think she's a very competent person and I think she will do everything she can to get to the center." There is cunning behind this glum talk. Foreseeing gloom, Gingrich may be positioning himself as a kind of latter-day Barry Goldwater, a candidate conservatives can be proud to vote for in a year when they face near-certain defeat.

Gingrich has always thrived by sensing opportunity where others see only an abyss. When the dismal midterm election of 1982 left the future of the Reagan revolution in jeopardy, Gingrich, then an unknown junior congressman from Georgia, organized seminars on how the party could find its way again and established himself as one of conservatism's great intellects. In 1993, when Bill Clinton's Democrats were heady with power, Gingrich scrambled to become leader of the beleaguered Republican caucus. Within two years, he was speaker of the House.

Now, as before, Gingrich's only hope is that his party concludes it has none. Memories of a government shutdown and partisan warfare in the '90s hardly make him a beloved figure. In a June Gallup poll, 48 percent of Americans said they have an unfavorable opinion of Gingrich, compared with 27 percent who said they had a favorable impression. Gingrich declines to assess his own electability yet—"I'm not in the race," he says—but he would have a hard time convincing primary voters he is the candidate with the best chance of beating Clinton. A successful Gingrich candidacy would require conservatives to compromise politically in order to stand on principle. They would, in sum, have to get over electability and settle for a lively airing of ideas.

It's an unlikely prospect, but not an unprecedented one. For 40 years, conservatives have quoted Barry Goldwater's nomination- acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican convention: "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice … and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." Goldwater would go on to lose by the fourth largest margin in American history, a defeat conservatives now wear as a badge of honor. By refusing to temper his rhetoric, Goldwater provided the bold, ideological framework used to build modern conservatism.

Gingrich wants to be a postmodern Goldwater, a man who uses technology to bring on the next great debate. He imagines a presidential campaign where instead of spending money on TV advertising, a candidate mails DVDs laying out his ideas to every voter in Iowa and New Hampshire with a simple request: "Do you think your country's future, your children's future and your grandchildren's future is worth one hour of your time?" Could such an unorthodox strategy actually work if it was unleashed as late as this winter? It seems unlikely. Which is why Gingrich can't be discounted: unlikely prospects have always served him well.