Newt for President?

Posted: Jan 11, 2005 12:00 AM

Newt for President. No, it's not coming from his own mouth, but the buzz has started. And for those who might pooh-pooh the very idea, take this as fair warning: Underestimating Newt Gingrich is a big mistake.

 As a Gingrich disciple in the early '80s, I traveled with longtime Republican consultant Bob Weed to the Reagan White House. There, we presented political concepts that the little-known Newt and the rest of us felt were essential for the president's domestic agenda. Among them was an idea I felt embarrassed even to discuss -- a tax credit for families who bought one of the new consumer frills known as personal computers. White House staffers doubtless got a laugh over that one. Not un-typically, however, the world is no longer laughing at that Gingrich concept, or at any of his others.

 Similarly, Gingrich would later be branded as a wide-eyed political bomb-thrower for forcing Jim Wright out as U.S. House speaker. And Newt barely survived consecutive re-election bids in the early '90s in his home state of Georgia. Who could blame those in Washington for not foreseeing that an innovative band of congressional brethren would transform Gingrich's self-proclaimed "Conservative Opportunity Society" into a "Contract with America"? More, we were quietly planning the astonishing political coup that ended in the Republican takeover of the House in 1994, and thus Gingrich's taking of the speaker's gavel.

 Yes, Newt sometimes lacked for public relations charm in his years of stratospheric power. The media loved to stain his new glory by coining images of him as a spoiled brat or a mean-spirited egghead. They made an international incident of his being relegated to "the back of the bus" on President Clinton's Air Force One. (The real story was that Gingrich never complained about his assigned seat or the door through which he exited the plane. Instead, he was upset that he and Clinton had squandered valuable time they could have used to work on the serious federal budget crisis.)

 The so-called "government shutdown" that resulted from the budget stalemate was pinned completely on Speaker Gingrich; one national magazine even portrayed him as The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. In reality, no American went without during that shutdown. Besides, the current spendthrift Congress and White House might do well to entertain a little budget "shutting down" themselves.

 But here's the key to Newt Gingrich that I learned long ago: He can weather the tough times because his mind is always locked on a future that most people can't yet see. A case in point is his new book, "Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America." The man with the crystal ball has a new portfolio of insights, and the rumor mill in Washington has it that Gingrich's latest, book-boosted self-reinvention will align just so with the emerging political hopes and fears of Americans in the coming years.

 Take health care. The former speaker and his Center for Health Transformation have become first sources for those seeking new ideas on the many health-related issues confronting the nation. The center's Web site features an assortment of legendary "Gingrich-isms" that only Newt could invent -- "Interoperable Health Information Technology Initiative," for example. (See

 At first read, terms like these feel as futuristic as personal computers did a generation ago. Closer inspection proves that these fancy locutions point to elegantly simple ideas, such as a seamless health information system that would enable providers to care for individual patients with up-to-the-minute information and medical history. They demonstrate that while the political world at large has been slogging through cliches and generalities since Gingrich left office, Newt has been carefully constructing workable, potentially life-altering public policy concepts and initiatives.

 Our prior InsiderAdvantage national surveys have shown that Americans -- particularly the ubiquitous baby-boomers -- list health care at the top of their lists for issues for which they want to see real change. By the presidential election of 2008, the issue will be parked in the middle of the political road. Will Newt be there with a tow truck?

 If so, which Democrat might he face? Sen. Hillary Clinton is the name on many minds. Remember, it was the nation's reaction to her own strong ideas about national health-care policy that helped position Gingrich and his party mates for their legendary takeover in 1994.

 It's a long way to 2008. Much can and will change. But many Republicans by then may be yearning for the apparently bygone days of fiscal restraint from their party. And voters of all stripes may in four years believe that being cerebral is not a liability in a political candidate, but instead a refreshing and necessary attribute.

 The revival of Newt Gingrich isn't so far-fetched. As one who has witnessed virtually his entire career from a unique vantage point, I can say I'd never bet against him. Perhaps this time, the future that Gingrich speaks so eloquently about is a future with his name written all over it.