"In the real world we were kidding ourselves"

Newt Gingrich talks to Salon about why he and his party were so wrong about the election and the future of the GOP

Published March 3, 2013 12:00PM (EST)

There was a popular theory for much of the 2012 Republican presidential campaign that Newt Gingrich wasn’t actually running for the GOP nomination – that he was instead leveraging the stature and visibility that comes with being a candidate to market his personal brand. Whether by brilliant design or complete accident, though, the former House Speaker managed to catch fire – twice – delivering a memorable blow to Mitt Romney in the South Carolina primary before falling apart in Florida and fading from contention.

That rise-fall-rise-fall cycle neatly reflects the role Gingrich plays in national politics. He has an enduring knack for attracting attention and making himself relevant to the political conversation of the moment, even if most opinion-shapers in his party ultimately aren’t comfortable with him being their public face. So it’s no surprise that even as he nears 70, Gingrich is a vocal participant in the debate over the Republican Party’s direction, one who’s made news recently by taking shots at Stuart Stevens, the architect of Mitt Romney’s ’12 campaign, and Karl Rove.

He entered the fray shortly after the election with a memo to GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, describing himself as blindsided by the November result and “shaken” that he and so many other Republicans had misread the state of play so badly. He outlined 25 principles for a “deep, bold, thorough and lengthy” reform process within the party. Among the points of emphasis: the need to compete for non-white voters and to stop writing off urban areas. More recently, he pointed the finger at Romney and his strategists for worsening the party’s plight with Latinos by running far to the right on immigration during last year’s primary (a tactic that helped Romney derail Gingrich, who had struck a more inclusive tone on the issue).

Salon spoke with Gingrich about where the Republican Party is and where it’s going. The transcript of the conversation, slightly edited and condensed for clarity, is below. 

The pre-election polls were pretty clear in showing Obama had a decent advantage. Why do you think you and so many Republicans were so confident? What did you get wrong about the campaign?

First, there was a belief in economic determinism, that you couldn’t have that level of unemployment and have a president get re-elected. So people just sort of had a bias that as long as the economy stayed bad, he would lose. And of course they proved that in many ways identity politics beat economic politics, which I think is a considerable achievement.

Second, I think we underestimated the degree to which  they were winning the argument. There’s an old Margaret Thatcher phrase I use over and over: “First you win the argument, then you win the vote.” If you look at the attitudes of the country, they ended up blaming George W. Bush, not Obama. They ended up thinking that ObamaCare actually was a net plus by the election. None of that seemed at all obvious to us.

And third, I think conservatives in general got in the habit of talking to themselves. I think that they in a sense got isolated into their own little world. So our pollsters, many of whom were wrong about turnout. No Republican pollster thought you could get 87 percent turnout in Milwaukee. You just sort of have to say that to some extent the degree to which we believed that the other side was kidding themselves, it turned out in fact in the real world – this is a part of what makes politics so fascinating – it turned out in the real world we were kidding ourselves.

You talked about the information bubble that existed through Fox News, talk radio, that sort of thing. Has that changed at all since the election?

I think that there are a lot of Republicans who are a lot more skeptical today than they were on the morning of the election. In some ways, the final symbol was Rove arguing over Ohio on Fox News after the Fox decision desk had called the state. I’m not picking on Karl, but I’m saying Karl in that sense personified a mindset that I was part of and that an amazing number of people were part of.

To give him some credit, Frank Luntz did a conference call that Callista and I listened to about 5:30 that day, and he went through exit polls and we just stared at each other because it was clear that the exit polls were so different from our expectation -- that it was going to be a very long night.

One of the stories of 2012 is that the electorate is less white than ever, and it’s trending in an even less white direction. I don’t think there’s been an election after ’64 when Republicans broke 20 percent with the black vote, the Hispanic vote now, two straight elections…

By the way, Reagan’s approval when he left office, among African Americans, was something like 42 percent. I would argue that there was a brief moment between Reagan and Jack Kemp when we were almost breaking through – and then we relapsed into being normal Republicans.

When you look at the Republican Party’s relationship with African Americans and Hispanics, what is the message you want to deliver to those voters?

I’m for a big rethinking. I don’t think a modestly reformed Republican Party has any real chance of competing in the absence of a dramatic disaster. If there was a big disaster, people would be driven away from the Democrats, but in the absence of a really big disaster, if you want to compete in a difficult but not impossible world, we’re going to have to have very large fundamental rethinking.

The first thing you have to do with African Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans and Native Americans is go there. They don’t need to come to you; you need to go to them. And when you go there, listen. Phase one is not going there to tell about you. Why is it we can have entire cities that are disasters, that we can have 500 people getting killed in Chicago, we can have Detroit collapsing, we can have the highest black unemployment teenage in modern history, and no Republican politician can figure out that going there to say, “Gee, shouldn’t we do something to make this better”? And then talk about it jointly, so it becomes a joint product -- that it’s not “Let me re-explain conservatism.” I don’t mean to walk away from conservatism, but we need to understand conservatism in the context of people who are talking with us.

Does there need to be a rethinking of conservatism then, as it relates to voters the party’s kind of written off in recent elections?

Sure, sure. And Kemp is significant part of that. If you go back and look, again, one of the reasons that the Reagan-Kemp period was so exciting was that you had a NFL quarterback and Hollywood movie star, and they were breaking out of the Republican norm. People have to know that you care before they care that you know, and I think that really captures a large part of this. One of my messages to Republicans is very simple: One-third of your schedule should be listening to people in minority communities. And today, if you’re not putting one-third of your schedule – and of course, no consultant will suggest this, because you’re not going to get a huge vote in the first trial run – but what you’re going to do, is start to change the whole pattern of dialogue and you learn a whole new language, you’re going to learn a whole new reality. The fact is inner-city black districts are not the same as suburban Republican districts. That’s a fact. And people need to go and learn about the whole country.

When I hear that, my skeptical response in terms of the politics of it from the Republican standpoint would be that the Democratic vote, in 2012 is more tightly condensed geographically than the Democratic vote really has ever been. Obama won like 690 counties – less than Dukakis even did. So you’ve got a situation now where the Republicans at the House level can sustain a majority while writing off these urban Democratic districts.

Look, they just can’t become a governing majority. If they want to be like the old Democratic Party which was doing just fine in Congress, but had no message for the country and no understanding of presidential campaigns, that’s certainly a track they can take. I think it’s bad for America and I think it’s bad for the Republican Party. This requires looking at guys who are in totally safe seats, who could coast the rest of their lives, “You owe it to the country and you owe it to the party to go and do some things you don’t have to do for reelection, but you do have to do for America.” We’ll see what happens. It’s going to be a very interesting, very dynamic debate over the next four years.

So how does that advice square with – and I think you kind of experienced this when you ran last year – the threat to the average Republican congressman of a primary challenge if he or she strays at all from conservative orthodoxy, like you did on immigration?

Accept it and go win the challenge. I think the position I took on immigration, for example, was the right position and actually it didn’t hurt me at all. I think some of these people run in a frightened way that they don’t need to, so all you have to do is stand up and explain yourself. I am for governing 100 percent of America, and I’ll be glad to debate in any Republican primary anywhere, whether the moral obligation of a great party is to 47 percent or 53 percent or 100 percent.

But when you see some of these primary results – like a Christine O’Donnell winning in Delaware, a Ken Buck in Colorado, a Joe Miller in Alaska – don’t you think that sends a frightening message to incumbents? The risk here…

That should send a message to incumbents that you clearly weren’t getting the message that people were extraordinarily angry. Part of the job of an incumbent is to listen to and represent a community. That doesn’t mean you need to be dictated to. That’s literally what actually happened to Bob Bennett (the former Utah senator defeated for re-nomination in 2010) and Orrin Hatch (who was re-elected in Utah in 2012). Orrin understood it early, went home early, listened to people, introduced them to legislation that made them feel pretty good, and he did fine.

But Hatch ran far to the right, and basically ran on the same platform that Romney was sort of forced to run on in the fall, and it worked in Utah, but it didn’t work in swing states...

That’s what I was going to say, that works in Utah.

Right. But you were describing a problem of getting out of safe red states and safe red districts.

I don’t think you’re automatically trapped in this. If you are saying, “Is it harder to build a successful national movement from where we are right now than it would be to coast?” the answer is yes. I’ve done this twice before. It was harder in the late ‘70s with Reagan, and I was a very junior member of the House in ’79 and ‘80. And I had lost twice. I lost in the Watergate year (1974) and I lost in the Jimmy Carter ear (1976) to the Democratic Party ticket. We had to rebuild after the first Bush. And then the ’94 campaign was the culmination of 16 years of work.

Yes, creating a modern, dynamic Republican Party capable of listening to 100 percent of the country is going to be a ton of work. And the question is: Is it necessary or is it avoidable? I think it’s necessary. And I’m not telling you we’re going to succeed. I’m not even telling you we’ll win the argument inside the party, but I do believe it is the right argument.

Do you believe long-term that the demographics are the biggest threat to the Republican Party?

No, I think the lack of ideas is the biggest threat. Look at what’s gone on with the sequester, OK? The fact that they haven’t held hearing after hearing for better ideas, that they haven’t told everybody in risk of being furloughed, “Show us the ways to save money,” that were just sort of – cut, to me, is not exactly a battle cry around which you build a majority. Saving, to some extent, is, but breaking out with better ideas, a better future, better solutions – that to me is where we’re going to have to go. And if you do it right, you can then appeal to virtually everybody in the country.

Does John Boehner have the power, though, given all the skepticism towards him from conservative members and the conservative movement, to lead that kind of effort?

He has the position to encourage it. He has a position to ask his chairman to hold the right kind of hearings. One of my core arguments is going to be, we need to be the party of a better future, not the anti-Obama party. And we better think through what that’s going to require and how do we achieve that.

When you look at the dynamic that’s now emerging in the House – we saw it in the Violence Against Women act last week, we saw it with Sandy aid and we saw it with fiscal cliff, with Boehner bringing to the floor bills that an overwhelming majority of the conference oppose, then pass on the strength of Democratic votes. What do you make of that? What does that say about what’s going on in the Republican Party right now?

I think it’s tactically where we are at the moment. I don’t draw a great deal out of it for the long-term. We occasionally did that when I was speaker. So it’s not necessarily today or tomorrow – it’s over a period of time. Somebody just pointed out that Reagan and I are two people who have their tapes at the national archives. In my case, it’s the GOPAC training tapes that we did (in the 1980s). It’s easy to forget, but in that long stretch, we were creating the party that won in ’94. We would not have looked in the Washington Post on any given day like we were, because what we were doing didn’t fit with what they defined as important news. It’s the nature of the media – that it focuses on this week’s crisis.

But the long term challenge to the Republican Party is to decide if it is prepared to fundamentally rethink what it’s doing? Is it prepared to make that real on a personal and practical level? Does it involve the whole country, and does it involve focusing on a better future rather than just fighting Obama? The party that makes the right choice in those cases, I think, is going have a very good future.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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