At 68, Newt Gingrich is both the oldest and grayest of the leading GOP presidential candidates. And his greatest political victories came more than a decade ago, before he left elected office in 1999. That means the new millennium hasn’t seen any executive or legislative achievements for the former House Speaker.
Consequently, there’s no candidate in the race banking as heavily on voters’ wistfulness. It’s a strategy born out of necessity and, rather conveniently for Gingrich, happens to be great politics.
In many cycles, presidential candidates have framed their message in futuristic terms. President Clinton had his “Bridge to the 21st century”; President Obama sold a vision of unprecedented cooperation in a bitterly divided country, promising that “Yes, we can.” But Gingrich is betting that his political moment will be more horn-rimmed glasses and less 3-D glasses — a “Morning in America again,” with a distinct emphasis on “again.”
All of that sounds good enough, but it gets even better when contrasted with today’s 9.1 percent unemployment, bloated federal budgets and entitlements and an increasingly fractious international environment.
Indeed, nostalgia for the ’90s is at an all-time high, and one of the decade’s seminal figures, then-first lady and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is showing just how politically attractive those washed in the glow of the ’90s can be. A Time magazine poll last month showed her beating all major Republican candidates in hypothetical 2012 match-ups by 17 percent or more.
Indeed, Gingrich has taken his association with President Clinton and turned it into a positive — in a GOP primary, no less. On Fox News last week, he talked about balancing the budget while “working with Bill Clinton.” And throughout the past year, he’s used his work with Clinton as both a useful reminder of a more politically successful time and a point of contrast with Obama.
“I look back on negotiating with President Clinton, and I’m amazed at the rigidity President Obama has shown,” he told reporters while campaigning in Georgia. “President Clinton … understood we wanted to get things done.”
And he told Esquire that his relationship with Clinton extended beyond political compromise.
“Clinton and I used to talk like it was a graduate-school session,” Gingrich reminisced. “We both like books, we both like ideas.”
In fact, earlier this year Gingrich even started calling himself “the comeback kid” — a moniker Clinton attached to himself after surviving the Gennifer Flowers scandal.
Clearly, Gingrich isn’t running from his relationship with Clinton, nor from the decade that defined them both, as he faces the increased media attention that comes with his recent rise in the polls.
But Gingrich has reached even further into the archive to buttress his image.
As recently as four years ago, Ronald Reagan’s name was on the tip of every Republican tongue, but there’s been far less reminiscing about him this cycle.
Unless, of course, you were listening to Gingrich. A Smart Politics analysis of a September GOP presidential debate showed that Gingrich invoked Reagan’s name twice as many times as any other candidate.
And Gingrich has deployed the legendary Republican president’s name in a wide variety of circumstances. After he got drubbed for criticizing Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.),
Gingrich claimed that an elite cabal had conspired against him and that Reagan was likewise seen as a “genuine outsider.” Then there was the time that he beat back reports that his wife Callista’s involvement in the campaign had led to nearly his entire staff resigning.
“Look, Callista and I have a very similar relationship to Nancy and Ronnie Reagan,” he explained on Fox News.
And in his most distant reach into his own personal political history, in another Fox appearance, he talked of a “vision — the one I learned with Goldwater in ’64.”
But Gingrich’s ode to the past comes with clear risks.
First, it highlights the fact that he hasn’t been terribly relevant for more than a decade. Sure, he’s run think tanks, written articles and given speeches. But for many of those years, he was treated as a relative pariah by national Republicans, who were eager to emerge from his extreme unpopularity when he left office, and he can’t point to any states he’s run or recent achievements in his stump speeches.
Second, it highlights his age at a time when Republicans are working strenuously to update the party image by showcasing such stars as Ryan, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. The GOP nominated the ancient John McCain in 2008, a Bush in 2000 and 2004, Bob Dole in 1996 and another Bush before that.
Indeed, elements within the party seem to want to move on, but Gingrich, frankly, seems to want to look back. We’ll see who’s right.
Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a staff member at The Hill. Find his column, GOP Presidential Primary, on thehill.com.