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Newt's Past and Future Leadership

A Commentary By Tony Blankley

Almost all political commentators agree on one thing. The Republican presidential campaign is unlike any we have experienced. It is not a campaign of steady trends and continuities, but rather of emotional reversals and discontinuities. Perhaps this is so because the last 3 to 4 years have been a shocking time of discontinuities and reversals for America. Really, America has been bewildered, shocked and disoriented since Sept. 11, 2001. The economic collapse and the unprecedentedly statist policies of the last three years have just compounded the anxiety. The rise of China, the fall of Europe and the chaos in the Middle East have been startling in their swiftness -- and the lack of American leadership as these dramatic events unfold is sending a shudder throughout the world.

We don't know what to make of events. We have not been convinced that either President George W. Bush or incumbent President Obama have had a clue about how to make things right.

The GOP primary voters reflect this helter-skelter search for leadership. And I predict that when the general electorate is engaged in the general election campaign next year, the independents and some Democrats will reflect the same desperate confusion and search for the right kind of leadership for these treacherous times. But what kind of candidate is most likely to make sense of the terrible events and forces that weigh down our country; be capable of vividly describing our plight and what needs to be done; and convince the public that he or she has the intelligence, courage, experience and sheer willful capacity to force events favorably to America's historic interests and needs?

As I have chosen to phrase that question, the question answers itself. It is the GOP candidate currently at the top of the polls -- my former boss, Newt Gingrich.

But most Washington politicians don't see it that way. They see a conventional, close election -- not a bold, historic lunge by the voters to save the country. They suggest Mitt Romney may be better positioned to stitch together a safe campaign that noses out Obama by a point or two, or comes up short by a point or two. He might be that candidate.

Thus, Romney received the endorsement of the GOP political types -- congressmen and former congressmen. Now they are doubling down on their early bet and are out telling reporters that Gingrich was never much of a leader and never got much done.

Curious. I remember most of them enthusiastically following his leadership year after year as the Republican whip from 1989-1994. It was the most successful congressional opposition movement since Benjamin Disraeli formed the modern Conservative Party in Britain in the mid-19th century. And after the GOP took back the House for the first time in 40 years (and the Senate, too, by the way), Gingrich's four years as speaker proved to be the most productive, legislative congressional years since at least 1965 to 1967, and they were led by Lyndon B. Johnson from the White House. Working against -- and with -- Democratic President Bill Clinton, we passed into law most of the Contract with America, welfare reform, telecommunications reform (which ushered in the modern cell phone and Internet age), we had the first balanced budget since before the Vietnam War, we cut taxes and lowered unemployment to under 5 percent.

Just who the heck do all these wizard political pros think managed all that? It wasn't us clever staffers or many of the now grumbling GOP K Street crowd. We helped, but Gingrich led. I admit Gingrich's methods were not orthodox. He modified the seniority committee chairman system and picked the best members for the key posts. More than a few feathers got ruffled.

One of his key insights was to recognize that the two-dozen Northeastern moderates and liberals in the GOP caucus held the balance of power -- we didn't have 218 safe conservative votes in the House. Gingrich needed to avoid them playing off the GOP against the Democrats, which is what such a faction in any congressional party normally tries to do. Rather, he wanted them to feel fundamental loyalty and value in sticking with the GOP working majority. To do that, they had to get some of the provisions that they wanted in bills, often enough that they would stick with the conservatives on other issues.

This required a lot of maneuvering by Gingrich. Conservative members got frustrated that he did that. They called that erratic on his part. No, it was a necessary, calculated maneuver. He was actually shrewdly managing a precarious majority. If Gingrich hadn't kept the Northeastern liberals in the fold, very little would have been accomplished in those spectacular four years of legislating and leadership.

But when it came to fundamental conservative principles and the political strategies necessary to protect them, Gingrich saw the threats to them and never wavered. I was amused to see Gov. John Sununu, President George H. W. Bush's chief of staff and a current Romney supporter, criticize Gingrich last week.

I remember back in 1990, just after Gingrich had become the GOP whip, President Bush, urged on by Gov. Sununu, was about to break his campaign pledge and raise taxes, which eventually cost him his re-election bid against Bill Clinton. It was Gingrich who opposed it. In fact, Marlin Fitzwater (Bush and Sununu's loyal, shrewd White House press secretary -- and no fan of Gingrich's at the time) later wrote in his memoirs, "As it turned out, one of the few people on the Republican team who understood this trap (the Democrats demanded Bush raise taxes as the political price to reduce the deficit) was Newt Gingrich. ... Newt had ... recommended a different course of action: Abandon the budget negotiations (with the Democrats), keep the tax pledge, insist that Congress cut spending, and make a political fight out of it. It's clear now that we should have followed his advice."

Years later, when Gingrich was speaker, he followed his own advice. He refused to raise taxes, he made a political fight of spending cuts with Bill Clinton (paying a big price in personal smears run against him), but we won the historic balanced budgets.

In dangerous times, the safer choice for president is not the candidate who has always played it safe, nor is it the candidate who has not already faced and defeated adversity.

Tony Blankley is executive vice president of Edelman public relations in Washington.


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