Newt Gingrich was the speaker of the House – and the face of the Republican Party – for the last and longest government shutdown. In the 18 years since, he survived an attempted ouster by now-Speaker John Boehner before resigning after the ’98 midterms, mounted a colorful presidential campaign in 2012 and this fall joined CNN as host of the relaunched "Crossfire." In a Friday interview with Salon, Gingrich offered advice for Boehner and Sen. Ted Cruz; defended his comments on Obama and the “Kenyan anti-colonial mentality”; and urged Republicans to refuse to deal with Obama unless he fires an adviser for comparing them to terrorists. What follows is a condensed version of our conversation.
How would you rate Ted Cruz's effectiveness at pulling the Republican leadership in his direction over the past several weeks?
Well, I think there have been a group of them – Mike Lee, Rand Paul. I think they clearly have moved the center of gravity of the party in Congress a reasonable distance.
In the process, Ted Cruz has made some enemies … is his strategy working at this point?
Well, look: I think he is very aggressive, and very confident, and that rubs some of his elders wrong. And not only do they dislike what he’s doing, they dislike his style. And that’s something he’s going to have to think through. I certainly had a fair number of people here back in – pull the clips – I had a fair number of people who deeply disliked me, and deeply disliked what I was doing, all the way up toward becoming a majority. Many of whom were then glad to become chairmen.
Do you think what he’s doing will be good for Republicans in the long term?
Yes. I think he is making noise, which this party has to learn to do. I think he is laying out a particular position that a substantial part of the country agrees with, and I think it’s healthy for a party of opposition to have fights about what it believes and what it’s doing.
If you were in Ted Cruz’s position, is there anything you would do differently?
Spend a lot more time being nice to my colleagues.
Any particular way in which you think he hasn’t done that so far?
Not necessarily. I mean, if you’re asking – I spent a great deal of time helping people, working with people, trying to figure out what they needed and what they were doing. Because I knew if I was going to push them, I had to also build up a reservoir of good will, so they would tolerate it.
Speaker Boehner, is he leading the House Republicans at this point?
He said the other day in a press conference, which I was very grateful for, that he actually was following a sign that I had on my desk when I was speaker, which is “listen, learn, help and lead” -- in that order. And I would say in that sense he’s doing exactly what I would have done. He’s listening to the conference, which is in evolution. He’s trying to sort out how to lead the whole conference, not just one faction or the other. That means he inevitably has to evolve and change his own position, because that’s where we are.
If he were to bring a clean CR [Continuing Resolution] at this point and allow a vote, do you think he would then be in danger of losing his position?
I don’t know the vote count internally. But I think in the country, it would be an enormous disappointment to the activist wing of the party.
At that point do you think we would see a strong challenge to him?
I have no idea. I wrote a piece for CNN the other day where I said it would be a disaster if the House Republicans caved. Now that they’re in this fight, they have to prove to the president that they’re serious people.
What would count as a victory for them at this point?
Well, to start along with, the president deciding that he was under the Constitution and he’s gonna negotiate. He’d quit acting like a king. I mean, this is John at Runnymede all over again. The president’s prancing around saying give me what I want -- by the way, not just on the CR, give me what I want on the debt ceiling.
You've been critical of this president, saying last year he's "a false president," "not a real president," that he "doesn't do the president's job” –
He doesn’t behave in any way as a collegial leader of a constitutional system in which he has to have the support of the Congress to get things done. He behaves as though stating his opinion and giving you an ultimatum is his idea of negotiation. And that’s what -- in one week, making three speeches attacking Republicans. Having a senior White House staffer describe Republicans as terrorists with body bombs strapped to their chest. I mean I would have called … and said if that person is still there, don’t expect us to deal with you at all.
So in other --
So in other words you would have demanded that that staffer be fired?
As a condition for reopening the government, or as a condition for negotiations?
As a condition of doing anything with the White House.
You called "Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior," "the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior." Do you think events since then have proven that correct?
I think that the -- what I was citing was a very interesting book, which became a movie, which I think does give you some sense of the origins of some of, of his values. I mean, go back and read his Cairo speech, and look at reality, and ask yourself how could somebody have been that wrong. And I think it’s because he actually believed the mythology of the left.
And which values are those?
Well, that everybody’s ultimately nice, that everybody wants to have a democracy, that we can really all get along easily, that the U.S. has to be very cautious and restrained because, after all, all these nice people mean well.
And how is that related to “Kenyan anti-colonial behavior”?
Look, I would describe – well, go read the book! I was making a passing comment about a book which I found useful, and which described basically an academic belief system. Now since you know, you can decide if you agree with it or disagree with it, but that’s what it was based on.
And that view, do you think that view has been vindicated over the past year?
Well, OK, I’m trying to suggest to you, first of all, I have no idea. I don’t spend a lot of time psychoanalyzing the president. I’m not going to spend a lot of time with you to set up some kind of absurdity. The fact is, I was citing a particular book I thought was helpful. You might want to read that book and decide if it’s helpful.
And when you’ve talked about the president working “part-time,” or needing to go play basketball or watch ESPN –
You mean like making his Syria announcement and going to golf? Would that be an example?
So are you saying that that reinforced that argument for you?
I don’t think this is a president who takes seriously the hard, difficult work of trying to get people to voluntarily agree to anything. This is a president who lives his life as an orator, and if the oratory works he’s happy, and if it doesn’t work he just has more oratory.
Is it your view that the president is lazy?
I have no idea. It’s my view that the president doesn’t believe that he is within the framework of people who get elected to help run America. [He believes] that he’s above them. That they should do what he wants or he’ll attack them and that he’s clever and a good orator so he can attack … That’s my view.
Go read the speeches. As painful as it would be for you, pretend that you’re a Republican. Read the speeches and ask yourself how would you feel? Is this a guy you’d want to work with?
And when you talk about “part-time,” or needing to “go play basketball” or “watch ESPN,” people who say that that’s indulging in a racial stereotype about the president – what’s your response to that?
That they’re insane. Look, the vast majority of the people who watch ESPN are not black, OK? Can we start with that fact? The vast majority of people who watched the Final Four were not black. So why is it they have to default to racism in order to attack someone?
Default to racism you mean in terms of making an accusation of racism, or –
Yes, exactly. They live in a world where they think, instead of analyzing or defending or thinking, yell racism. And then the other side’s supposed to melt and go away.
And do you think there’s a reason that you often are accused of this, as compared to other Republicans?
I’ll let you decide. I think mostly it’s an absurdity and I think most people in America are tired of it, and think it’s a very tired old dodge.
And when you’ve talked about the president behaving in a way that’s “almost unconstitutional,” or acting like “a king,” does that suggest that we’re going to see some kind of impeachment fight in this term?
We shouldn’t, unless he’s very foolish. You know, I would think if they actually tried to waive the debt ceiling by executive order, that would be extraordinary … The point I’d ask you is, why does he refuse to behave like a normal president? Why does he refuse to -- you know, from Dwight Eisenhower on we’ve added things to the debt ceiling. Why does he think he’s above this?
If he did take the position that he could continue paying the bills after the debt ceiling hasn’t been raised, would you support impeachment at that point?
No, I think at that point the Congress would be faced with a serious problem and I’m not prescribing anything. I’m just saying that would be a step so extraordinary … you’d have to ask yourself what under our system are the legitimate choices. That would in effect escalate the conflict dramatically.
And what would be the legitimate choices then?
Well, the first thing goes back to money. Now look, I’m not going to try to give you some cheap headline, which is exactly what you’re angling for. I’m happy to have a serious conversation and hope you’ll actually think about it. I have little belief in that. So I’m not going to give you some easy headline.
So what do you believe is going to be the resolution of this shutdown?
The president is going to agree to negotiate. In the end, he has no choice under the Constitution. And when he’s done posturing he’ll negotiate. The question is how much damage he’ll do between now and then.
You’ve talked about the situation at the memorials in terms of veterans not being able to visit. How does that compare to the funding for the WIC program or Head Start, that depend on federal funding?
Look, I’ve -- first of all, the notable thing about the memorials is that it was a deliberately aggressive and egregious act. The World War II memorial is privately paid for. If you want to see how egregious it is, Mount Vernon, which has not accepted a penny since 1853 when the ladies took it over, has had their parking lots closed because the parking lot’s on federal land. No federal spending, no federal staff. The park service have been instructed, presumably by the White House, to go out of their way to cause pain. So it’s a different situation …
The House has now passed I think five or six bills, and will pass more today, all of them creating a framework to reopen large parts of government. I think they ought to pass WIC at some point in the near future. [Ed. Note: The House passed a WIC bill following our conversation.]
And so the question I have for you is, if they pass WIC, free and clear, nothing on it, will Harry Reid bring it up? Will anybody at Salon call Harry Reid and ask why he’s blocking all of these and won’t even let them come to a vote? And he of course suffers no consequence, because he’s a liberal Democrat.
And Head Start?
I think they will presently pass Head Start funding, free and clear.
And so how is this playing out so far in comparison to 1995 and 1996?
Not dramatically different … You know, the news media was hysterical, the country was all right, our base thought we were doing the right thing. And in the end, we were the first reelected Republicans [House majority] since 1928.
So going forward, should John Boehner pass budget bills or compromises that don’t get majority support from Republicans in the House? Should he allow them to come to a vote?
No. No. No, I don’t say it has to be a majority within Republicans. He doesn’t have to get 218 Republicans. But he has to have an absolute fairly large majority within the conference. There are 230 members in the conference, and I would say he shouldn’t bring up any bill that doesn’t get at least 160 or 180 votes.
On the budget specifically, or in general?
On anything. Because then you cease to be the party leader. I was in all sorts of meetings with [Democratic House Speaker] Tom Foley where he said … "I cannot bring up a bill that doesn’t have a majority of my caucus." And Boehner should have the same view. He doesn’t have to have 218 votes on his side, but he does have to have a pretty solid majority – I’d say somewhere in the 160 to 180 range.
And on past votes, has it been a mistake when the speaker brought things up that didn’t have majority support in the caucus?
I don’t remember him ever doing it.
Look, it’s very dangerous for a party leader in either party to reject a majority of their own party. That’s why “listen, learn, help and lead” is a really good model for the speakership.