They were lined up an hour early at Holloway Hall at Salisbury University to witness a little history – for the first time in recent memory the presidential campaign came to the lower Eastern Shore.
And true to the advice given by one university official who stressed the school wanted to promote “critical thinking” without heckling or other inappropriate disruptions, the audience of about 200 inside the hall was very well-behaved. The parents of these SU students should be quite proud of how their charges acted inside the hall. Once the question-and-answer period began it was obvious that not all in the room shared Gingrich’s worldview but the discussion was extremely civil.
However, I’m getting a little ahead of myself. First I’d like to thank Nikki Hovercamp of the Salisbury College Republicans for getting me into the event, because even the local Central Committee was taken by surprise with the announcement. She had the distinct honor of introducing the candidate.
(I tried four times to catch her with eyes on the audience but these old fingers are too slow.)
Gingrich walked in to a thunderous ovation, and after praising the Salisbury Zoo (which he had the opportunity to visit, saying “I have a passion for dropping by zoos whenever I can”) he revealed a little-known fact: one could consider Salisbury University the birthplace of the Contract With America, as House Republicans held a retreat here in early 1994. Newt went on to claim that Republicans won “because we were positive” and the net gain of 10 million votes gave the GOP the largest off-year gain up to that point.
While the Contract was successful as a “management document” it also provided them a guideline for what to do when they assumed power. Newt reminded us there was no “institutional memory” for House Republicans, as none had ever served in the majority.
I have to say it was an unusual point from which to begin a campaign appearance, but Newt told us that this would be “a different talk.” This speech would serve as part of an overall statement in the academic setting to be expanded on tomorrow at Georgetown University, Gingrich announced.
“I have been trying to wrestle with what I have not been able to communicate,” continued Newt, bemoaning the fact that during the campaign “I got sucked into normal politics, which is frankly…a waste of time.” The two challenges he wanted to address were, first, the core nature of this country, with American civilization being “profoundly different than other models around the world,” and, second, the “role of innovation in meeting challenges in creating a successful 21st century America.”
Regarding the first point, Newt went into an explanation of “the American Experience,” reached back to the Founding Fathers to remind us their first complaint was taxation without representation, but the second was judges. He recalled Hamilton saying the judiciary branch would be the weakest part of government, but now we’re at a point where the future could depend on “where one lawyer could reinterpret the Constitution based on a whim.” Obama is the personification of the opposite school of thought, said Newt.
He spent the bulk of his time expanding on the second point. “There is no reason for this country to have any significant problems,” Newt continued. Instead, the blame lay on a “really bad governing structure and a really incompetent bureaucratic system.”
There were two sides to this coin, with the “world of innovation” going up against the federal government. Newt joked we could easily find all 11 million illegal aliens by simply sending them a package via UPS or FedEx and tracking them from there. American Express, VISA, and Mastercard can validate you’re charging something in real time while Medicare and Medicaid are being “run by paper-based bureaucrats from 9 to 5 who are trying to keep up with crooks who use iPads 24 hours a day.” The point was fraud and waste could be eliminated, but the problem was administrations of both parties being “impervious to new ideas.”
Newt also defended his idea that we should go back into space, despite ridicule by his opponents and the media. Using the Wright Brothers and their 500 crashed test flights over five years as an example of private incentive, Gingrich said “I want to go back into space.” He believed that we use “a fairly large amount of NASA’s money” to create prizes as rewards for innovation. “Quit studying things and start doing them,” said Newt.
Energy was another key theme of Newt’s speech, as he spoke about the trucking industry’s conversion to natural gas, drilling for more of our own energy needs, and weaning our dependence off Middle Eastern oil. The bounty of natural gas “blows apart an idea some of you heard in class called ‘peak oil’,” continued the former Speaker. President Obama was being “plain factual false” when he said we had just 2 percent of the world’s oil supply, stated Gingrich. “Under my plan it might be harder to get to $2.50,” Gingrich said later when asked about the prospect of Iranian trouble, “but under Obama you’d get to $10.”
With the energy independence “revolution,” Newt went on, “(Other countries have) to worry about the Straits of Hormuz – we don’t.” We could even pay off our debt simply based on oil and natural gas royalties, which Gingrich claimed could run $16 to $18 trillion.
Other ideas Gingrich bounced off the audience were replacing the civil service system with a Lean Six Sigma approach, which would “accelerate the capability of government dramatically,” and privatizing the Social Security system, perhaps on a Chilean model. “Nobody dictates when you retire” under such a model, Gingrich added.
But another focus we need to create is one on “brain science,” combating diseases like Alzheimer’s, autism, Parkinson’s, and other mental illnesses. “Trillions” could be saved if we improve the research to “fix it rather than just take care of it.”
“If you take the most modern things available,” concluded Newt, “we would pull away from the Chinese just as decisively as 40 to 50 years ago, we pulled away from the Russians.” We have to “fundamentally overhaul” the government, but both parties are failing in this.
Like any good lecturer, Newt was kind enough to take questions from the audience, and I sensed many of those asking were across the political spectrum from the GOP hopeful. For example, the first questioner asked whether Gingrich backed a nuclear-free zone for the Middle East. “No,” he curtly said, because it would be a threat toward Israel.
Another questioner asked about cap-and-trade which he claimed Newt backed in 2007. But Gingrich cited a much smaller program limited to sulfuric acid and certain utilities that Congress approved under the Clean Air Act, and said that to jump from such a program to controlling all the carbon in the United States “is an absurdity.”
“I testified against cap and trade the same day Al Gore testified in favor it,” said Newt.
On his previous opposition to women in combat and ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ Gingrich believed we should defer to the command officers. But they would be disinclined to speak in public over their objection, added Gingrich, for fear of being “retired summarily.”
“If I become the nominee (and Obama doesn’t agree to seven three-hour debates) I will let the White House be my scheduler and wherever he speaks I would rebut his speech four hours later.” This was in reference to a question about debating President Obama. I liked that concept.
Regarding the “decaying dollar”, Newt vowed if elected to ask Congress to fire Ben Bernanke if he didn’t resign before Newt was sworn in. Gingrich also pledged to audit the Federal Reserve, which drew a smattering of applause. “We deserve to know who got the money and why,” Newt said.
Of course someone asked about student loans. Newt wasn’t going to change what students owe, but instead help to create jobs. “My goal is to get you to have the ability to have a good job,” he commented, but continued on, “I would urge all of you to rethink this whole student loan game.” By only borrowing the minimum required for schooling and not thinking of it as “free money” they could help themselves down the road. He used the College of the Ozarks as an example, where work pays for books, room, and board. “92 percent of those students graduate owing zero,” claimed Newt.
Was Obama “weak on terrorism” if he killed Osama bin Laden? he was asked. “You cannot explain (terrorism) unless you confront the problem of radical Islam,” Gingrich answered. Even when another student countered with the requisite Timothy McVeigh example, it was still “99 point something percent” of the problem.
And energy independence meant we wouldn’t tolerate Saudi threats. But Obama “lost the chance” to do something about the Iranian dictatorship and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and he blasted the President for apologizing to Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. “If I were the Commander-in-Chief I would never apologize to people who are killing young Americans,” Gingrich railed, “but that is exactly what we did three weeks ago, and the apology wasn’t warranted.”
Once Gingrich finished his 50-minute presentation, he met with a very fortunate group of Salisbury University College Republicans; meanwhile I stepped outside to see if the media presence looked like it did on the inside.
It was pretty busy outside too. Here’s one young lady being interviewed by Channel 47.
When I took that picture there was a print reporter on the other side of me; suffice to say we were getting plenty of reaction. It’s interesting to note that reportedly Gingrich lost his print reporter following but there was a solid sampling of media present.
So what did I think of the speech?
There was a lot to like in what Gingrich said, particularly in terms of the War on Terror, but there is a fundamental difference in the way I see his approach and my impression of straight-line conservatism and limited government. Look at all the things Gingrich would like to do involving the federal government – yes, he speaks about streamlining it but in the end the government is still there, still too powerful for our own good.
I was struck by the fact Newt talked about the fact one imposes discipline on Washington because they can’t do it themselves, but I don’t think he gets it that discipline isn’t just about spending but about curtailing federal power as well. Yes, having a prize for space-related activities is nice but we see what happened when the Department of Energy decided a $50 LED light bulb was “affordable.” There’s no guarantee that a Department of Environmental Solutions won’t eventually devolve to the same behemoth we have with the EPA.
But it’s interesting that, at this late stage in a campaign reduced to cheering upon staying out of the fourth-place basement, Newt is returning to his roots in a way. And when he spoke about never seeing four wolves howling at the same time as he did during his trip to the Salisbury Zoo today, that incident seemed to me a metaphor for how the GOP race should have been run – this pack should be howling about Obama instead of snapping at each other’s heels. In this stop Gingrich went back to his original theme of being solution-oriented and positive, barely mentioning his GOP opponents save on a couple occasions.
Of course, what put his campaign on the map for the brief time he was considered the top threat to the “invincible” Mitt Romney was his performance in the South Carolina debates, where he savaged the media and seized his own narrative for a few days – only to be destroyed by a barrage of negative ads from PACs affiliated with Mitt Romney in Florida. (Those same entities have set their sights on destroying Rick Santorum now, as Newt is barely a memory in the race.) It’s unfortunate that Newt couldn’t maintain his campaign on the comfort level he seemed to have today, holding 200 students and observers in the palm of his hand while he made his points.
In this moment it seems like Newt has practically abandoned his 2012 Presidential plans and now wants to return to being a teacher. While a younger generation of voters may or may not push the X next to Newt’s name this coming Tuesday, I’m hoping they learned the lesson of critical thinking the Salisbury University official stressed prior to the event. Isn’t that what college is for?
It will be interesting to see how Gingrich expands his topics tomorrow, but today may have been the start of the post-Presidential Newt Gingrich. Just by invoking the memory of his political salad days two decades ago, we were reminded that Newt was great at getting to the top. His problem was staying there.
Update: Robert Stacy McCain calls this period the “campaign death watch” for Newt. But Gingrich said in the remarks he was going to Tampa.