“I have a job,” Newt Gingrich told me this week, when I asked him if there was a job he might accept in the new administration. “I have a full-time job reconceptualizing the way Republican government will occur.”
Coming from someone else, this would sound like one of those platitudes Washington insiders often mouth when they’ve been passed over for something, as much to console themselves as to persuade you. I can do more good from outside the tent than inside. I wanted a broader portfolio. And so on.
But anyone who’s known Gingrich for very long — and he and I have talked often over the last decade — knows that he couldn’t be happier with how things are shaping up. Yes, he would have accepted the vice presidency had Donald Trump asked him. Yes, he has visions of himself as a very good defense secretary, if only he could hop into a time machine and serve during the last great land war.
But it’s hard to imagine Newt — he is universally known by his first name in Washington — dragging himself to the doorstep of some drab Cabinet outpost every morning, managing some sprawling bureaucracy, taking orders over the phone from some deputy chief of staff (or perhaps one of the Trump kids). It’s even harder to imagine him doing all that at the cost of the small empire he runs from across the Potomac River, a lucrative generator of speeches, films and books.
What Gingrich wants, as he first told me during a conversation at the Republican convention in July, is to be Harry Hopkins, the confidant to whom Franklin Roosevelt entrusted the implementation of the New Deal. I pointed out to him, during my hourlong visit to his Arlington office Monday morning, that Hopkins had worked alongside the president.
“This is the modern world,” Gingrich said breezily. “I’ve got an iPad and a smartphone. I’ll be inside the White House as much as I want to.”
Trump’s takeover of Republican politics over the last year, unfathomable and yet somehow inevitable at the same time, posed a treacherous test for establishment Republicans, few of whom came through unscathed.
Mitt Romney, for instance, tried to plant himself directly between Trump and the nomination, and now finds himself demonstrating his fitness for the State Department by translating French entrées off a menu. (“I would not say he’s not serious,” Gingrich told me of Trump’s dalliance with Romney. “But I would say he’s massively enjoyed it.”)
On the other end of the spectrum you have Chris Christie, who boldly leaped to Trump’s side when it made him a pariah in his own party — only to be cruelly discarded, it appears, when Trump no longer needed the governing imprimatur.
Perhaps no one, though, played it wilier than Gingrich, who has managed to hover near the center of Republican power for most of the last 20-plus years. Remaining uncommitted throughout the early primaries, the former House speaker and presidential candidate spoke kindly enough of Trump to be considered an ally, but demonstrated enough independence to avoid becoming a lackey.
Gingrich may well be the longtime politician closest to what Trump, who disdains the entire profession, would consider a peer. When he greeted me Monday, he mentioned that he had just gotten off the phone with the president-elect, who called because he had seen Gingrich defending Trump’s call with the Taiwanese president in multiple TV interviews. They talk periodically.
“He watches everything, never kid yourself,” Gingrich told me. “I spend a lot of time studying him. What does he do, why does he do it, what he’s trying to accomplish.”
To that end, I told Gingrich I was interested less in all the speculation around the transition than in how Trump would govern. I wanted to know what the first six months of the Trump administration would actually look like, if Gingrich had any influence over it.
Gingrich flashed that intrigued look he sometimes gives you, which I can only imagine is the same look he used to give his history students at West Georgia College when they asked him something that got him thinking.
“You ask me a good question, and I haven’t thought about how to put it down in an organized way,” Gingrich said, rising to his feet.
Behind him was a whiteboard where Newt had scribbled some phrases and diagrams, like Alan Turing trying to decode some new political language. Trump begins in answer form … Thus begins the personal evolution … Core cultural difference.
Now he hurriedly erased it all. Grabbing a red marker, he started writing out a series of headings, along with a triangular diagram. Below this and in the middle of the whiteboard, Gingrich scrawled out some figures: “$13 6yrs. $3 2.5mths.”
These few numbers, he explained, make up the centerpiece of what he calls “Trumpian” reform. They represent the story of the Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park, which New York City tried and failed to rebuild at a cost of $13 million over six years, and which an exasperated Trump (his office looked out over this monstrosity) finally renovated in a matter of months, for only $3 million.
Trump hadn’t known a thing about skating rinks, Gingrich reminded me. The first thing he’d done was to call a Canadian company, because he figured Canadians must know a lot about building skating rinks, and within a week he had a plan.
“You have to take that story as a logic train,” Gingrich told me, adding that he had advised Trump to make it a central plank of his campaign. In several key areas of government, Trump’s challenge in his opening months would be to break with convention and smash the bureaucracy in a handful of key areas, delivering fast results at a lower cost.
The park story, which Trump did in fact highlight in his primetime convention video, has always seemed a little unpersuasive to me. Rather than highlight Trump’s genius as a can-do builder, it reminds you of how little he can actually point to as proof of public service. A $3 million sheet of ice stands as his lone testament to civic-mindedness.
Given that limitation, though, it made sense to me that Gingrich should seize on this story as a guidepost for Trump as he girds for some important early battles with an entrenched governing establishment.
When all you have is a bulldozer, I guess everything looks like a rink.
“The first challenge in governing is to not blow up,” Gingrich told me. “Because if you blow up, you just have a mess, OK?”
He was talking about the unavoidable problem Trump will face right away, which is what to do about President Obama’s signature health care law. With a Republican Congress at his disposal and eager to scrap the law, Trump has no practical choice other than to make good on his vow to repeal it. But moving all at once would revoke coverage for some 22 million Americans and play havoc with the insurance market.
“So they’ve got to get through how you unravel Obamacare, because they want to replace it in a way that you never own the problem,” Gingrich said. “You don’t want to leave 22 million people anxiety-ridden. So start with that. And it is really, really complicated.”
In other words, Trump and the Republican Congress may make a big show of repealing some provisions, but the heart of the law — namely the state exchanges and the subsidies — may stay intact for a while yet, while lawmakers debate other solutions.
“You have to pass something in January or February,” he told me. “You have to. You pick the weakest, dumbest parts of Obamacare, and you replace them.”
At the same time, he said, Trump will have to do something immediate to back up his promises on keeping jobs in the country. While Republican leaders have already balked at Trump’s proposal to levy a 35 percent tariff on imports, Gingrich thinks the principle of a transfer tax might be more practical.
What that means, in theory, is that businesses might get a 35 percent tax rebate on goods built domestically while paying a corresponding 35 percent tax on anything they import from overseas — essentially a tariff with a corresponding tax cut.
The third pillar of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” platform, of course, was stemming illegal immigration. Immediately after the campaign, Gingrich made news when he called Trump’s wall “a campaign device.” In our conversation, he suggested there would, in fact, have to be a wall, but it might be literal in some stretches, with others filled in by sensors or patrols.
Gingrich expects Trump to take a hard stand against so-called sanctuary cities, which would afford him a highly symbolic way to castigate both illegal immigration and liberal government — a kind of two-for-one deal.
But even as Trump advances some tangible ideas to make good on his promises on these fronts, Gingrich told me, he’ll have to get down to the granular, often nasty business of breaking up longstanding bureaucracies.
This is the Wollman Rink parable applied to Washington; either Trump gets control of the governing apparatus so he can do things the way he wants, or the apparatus will simply stall until he’s gone.
“This is the biggest fight that they’re going to have,” Newt said. “You say, ‘I want you to go down and paint the building blue.’ And the federal workforce says, ‘Well, we’re not really sure where to find blue paint, and we’re not really sure we know how to paint, but we can fill out a report telling you that we’re seriously thinking about someday thinking about whether or not we’ll eventually have training to someday do something.’”
What Gingrich then outlined for me, on his whiteboard, were several grenades he wants Trump to unpin and hurl in his first year on the job — not only to remove the obstacles that stand in his path but to send a significant message to the voters about the meaning of Trumpian reform.
The first he mentioned to me was a bill to reform the civil service, so that Trump could hire and fire as he sees fit. Gingrich’s plan would be to make the Veterans Administration the focal point of this debate, because that lends itself to a classic “wedge” strategy; the idea is to make Democrats choose between the interests of civil servants and those of veterans.
Gingrich, you may recall, is very good at conceiving of this kind of devious strategy.
“What you want is to pit yourself against corrupt, dishonest, incompetent and sometimes criminal bureaucrats who are hurting veterans,” he told me. “And then you say, ‘All right, all you Democrats who are up in ’18, you want to vote to keep hurting veterans?’”
The second assault Gingrich wants to launch on the governing establishment is a bid to eliminate the Congressional Budget Office. This is the little-known, nonpartisan group of government economists that “scores” legislative proposals, meaning it tells you how much your tax cuts or your wall is likely to cost the government over a period of years.
Or, if you’re Gingrich, it’s “a small band of stunningly arrogant bureaucrats who should all be fired.”
The triangle Gingrich had drawn on the whiteboard was what he called a watershed. (“It’s really a chevron, but no one knows what this is,” he mumbled, as if people doodled watersheds every day.)
Gingrich put the CBO on one side; on the other he scribbled down “accurate private scoring” alongside other elements of his Trumpian idea. The idea is to hire private-sector firms to forecast public costs.
“If you’re still using CBO, you’ve not crossed the watershed,” Gingrich told me. “This is the centerpiece of Trumpism, and this is a very big test for Trump. This is not a city today capable of being a Trumpian city.”
Another point on Gingrich’s watershed indicated an assault on the foreign policy establishment. Trump, he said, should quickly order the American Embassy moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — something the last three presidents have refused to do, which to Gingrich demonstrates the outsize power of the diplomatic bureaucracy.
“I guarantee you the State Department will fall on its sword, people will be committing hari-kari,” he said. “Until somebody says to the foreign service, ‘This is over.’”
Whatever one thinks of these proposals, which taken together would essentially set official Washington aflame, Gingrich had, in under an hour, spun out a more specific agenda for Trump’s first year than anything the president-elect has managed himself. He had created a checklist for bold, systemic reform, a series of skating rinks waiting to be taken over and rebuilt.
What I wondered, listening to him hold forth, was how much of this agenda reflected Trump’s own conception of his nascent presidency, and how much was Gingrich just being wishful.
When I asked him whether he had discussed all this at length with Trump, Gingrich told me, “It is the inevitable consequence of where we are. It’s like saying to me, do I really have to advise him to refuel the car? And the answer is no. These are smart people.”
All of which gets at the essential mystery of Trump right now. Is he, as Newt would have you believe, a more strategic, more methodical thinker than he seemed at rallies or on the debate stage? “He’s really radically smarter than most of his critics think, and much more self-aware,” Gingrich assured me.
Or is Trump more like one of those toy cars you might have had as a kid — the kind that would keep going until it hit the wall of the playroom, then back up and head off in some other random direction?
Did Trump, as his advisers say now, take a call from Taiwan’s president last week because he had made a calculated decision to send China a message? Or did he pick up the phone because he’s impetuous and uninformed, and he’s only trying to look deliberate after the fact?
I really couldn’t tell you. And as I tilted my head to study his watershed, it occurred to me that Gingrich might not really know the answer, either.
Washington orients itself by historical analogies, and no shortage of them have been thrown around where Trump is concerned. A lot of hopeful Republicans will tell you he’s much like Ronald Reagan, whose adversaries too quickly dismissed him, similarly, as intellectually wanting.
The thinking here is that Trump may not be an especially learned guy when it comes to politics and history, but he knows what he doesn’t know, and he can surround himself with people like Gingrich, who know all about governing. What Trump can do, as both a self-reliant billionaire and a skilled entertainer, is to hold the line and galvanize public opinion.
In this light, Trump’s controversial chat with the Taiwanese president might be reminiscent of Reagan’s rattling of the Soviets. Perhaps he wants to be seen abroad as more impulsive and explosive than he really is.
It seems to me a specious comparison, though, not least because Reagan had governed the largest state in the nation (twice) and led a long ideological struggle within his own party before he was elected in 1980. He was nothing like the political novice that Trump is; the tendency to underestimate him probably came from his Western persona and distant career as a movie star, which seem irrelevant by modern standards.
For his part, Gingrich likes to say that Trump is an amalgam of three American prototypes: one-third Andrew Jackson, one-third Franklin Roosevelt and one-third P.T. Barnum.
When I offered that Trump’s campaign seemed more like 60 percent Barnum to me, Gingrich nodded. “That’s because it was a campaign,” he said wryly.
It’s not accidental that Gingrich compares himself to Harry Hopkins. Clearly he hopes the most relevant of the three influences now is Roosevelt — another wealthy New Yorker who made common cause with the working class at a time of economic peril.
Roosevelt not only redefined government in his time but realigned it, too, such that Republicans were effectively decimated as a governing party. Gingrich came to power in the 1990s hell-bent on trying to flip that reality, and he has never given up.
“My planning horizon is January of 2025,” he told me. “Do we govern so effectively at every level that the next president is naturally a Republican, because we’re being rewarded for being the party that solved things.”
That may or may not be the Trumpian vision of where we are, but it’s Gingrichian to the core.