One year and one month ago, the space shuttle Discovery completed its 39th and final mission. The moment it hit the ground, it was retired. Thirteen months into its obsolescence, NASA shelled out $11 million to strap it to a plane and fly it to the Smithsonian. Countless Washingtonians, plenty of whom had forgotten all about the shuttle, stood outside to gawk and film and Instagram the graceful final descent.
Newt Gingrich was taking notes. Today he announced that he will “transition” his presidential campaign into a nonpresidential campaign. The final descent will occur on Tuesday, at a speech in Washington. “It’ll be impressive,” predicts his unofficial biographer Craig Shirley, author of two books about Ronald Reagan. “He’s always been able to pull off a big, impressive speech.” And it’ll all happen a year after the city pronounced Gingrich politically dead.
Gingrich has given us this time so that we might reflect on how he ran for president, and what it did to him. How can he recover from a presidential bid that won in two out of 43 states? In one of the early Newt pre-obituaries, the Atlantic’s Molly Ball reflected on Gingrich’s high-paying Fox News gig (“that bridge has been burned”), his old American Solutions and Center for Health Transformation think tanks (“defunct”), his campaign account (“nearly $4.5 million in debt”), and his torso (“noticeably fatter”).
That empire won’t be rebuilt, not the same way at least. But is Gingrich really in worse shape now than he was in 1998, when he started laying bricks for the think tanks and consulting gigs? He didn’t get sacked by his own party. He lost a national primary that no one seriously thought he could win. The mid-2011 Gingrich collapse proved that the pages of Politico bulged with former associates trashing the guy.
Can he come back as a Republican adviser? He’ll still be living in McLean, Va., limo distance from any Republican who wants to tap him for advice. If a CNN guest spot can turn Hilary Rosen into an “Obama adviser,” whose opinion every Democrat had to answer for, a future, freelancing Gingrich can make himself relevant in the exact same way. “In this day and age,” suggests Shirley, “anybody can be rehabilitated. I mean, anybody.” (Shirley’s Citizen Newt has been delayed for a 2013 release; the narrative, he says, will probably end with the 1994 election instead of the 2012 “footnote.”)
Can Gingrich make money again? If he sticks to his May 1 drop-out date, he will get seven days off before he starts touring To Make Men Free: A Novel of the Civil War. (It was originally published in a limited run as The Battle of the Crater, which accidentally gave it the sound of a story about the moon, but that didn’t move the e-books.) His politics books are published by Regnery, which has no incentive to stop buying them. At the start of this campaign, Callista Gingrich was seen as a strange, mute curiosity. She’s now—go ahead, laugh—a reasonably successful children’s book author.
The next Gingrich renaissance might already be under way. He always claimed to be running on “ideas,” concepts big and bold that would save the future for his grandchildren. Some of these ideas made sense.
The moonshot: We know why Gingrich’s “moon colony” speech in Florida hurt him. Tautology was one reason—it sounded silly, so it was covered like it was silly. Fiscal policy was a reason, too—Tea Party voters retched at anything with the word “spending” in it. But what Gingrich really proposed was taking $2 billion from NASA’s budget and awarding it to private sector space innovators. All Gingrich did was overreact to the critics and bungle the explanation. “If I had been clever,” Gingrich told Jeffrey Goldberg this week, “I would have said to Romney, ‘You would have fired Christopher Columbus and John F. Kennedy because they were proposing daring and large things.’” (He’d used the line before, but we’re giving him credit for ideas, not zingers.)
Training sessions for bureaucrats: Starting last summer, Gingrich would tell any captive audience about Lean Six Sigma—a martial-arts-patterned efficiency program. Supercommittee wasn’t working? Implement Lean Six Sigma. Need to cut $500 billion in waste per year? Make federal employees take Lean Six Sigma training. “A properly focused Lean Six Sigma effort,” he’d say, “could reorient government to act in ways that would help balance the budget, grow our economy, accelerate job creation, and make America the most competitive country in the world.” Perhaps it wouldn’t get all of that done in one go. But Gingrich eventually massaged the idea into mandatory training for new hires under new presidential administrations. That doesn’t happen now. Instead, we have to wait a year or two for Ron Suskind to reveal how the new hires screwed up.
Deepening the port of Savannah: This might have been a small idea, but it reflected one of the big ones. Gingrich, hated by some conservatives because of his late 1990s deal-cutting, was the only Republican candidate keen to admit that government might, on occasion, need to spend money on things. Specific things. It was Gingrich who originally moved earmarking power from appropriators to individual members of Congress. At his high point, Gingrich even suggested that the role of a president should be to speak infrequently and delegate power—the legislators would know what to do.
“Pious Baloney.” Not on the same plain as the other ideas, sure, but has anyone come up with a better description of Mitt Romney’s biological defense mechanisms? At the Jan. 8 debate in New Hampshire, Romney suggested that he retired from the Massachusetts governor’s office only because he wanted to be a citizen again. “Could we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?” erupted Gingrich. “You have been running consistently for years and years, and then suddenly citizenship showed up in your mind.”
Gingrich excelled at debates. They were, he admitted, the reason he was able to stay in the race past the summer of 2011. (Sheldon Adelson’s giant checkbook came later.) He was a fine pundit and a horrifically flawed candidate. He’ll never be a candidate again. Problem solved.