Newt goes back to the future

Some years ago, when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was still in his heyday, I attended a Republican meeting that featured presentations by two so-called “futurists.” I believe it was Alvin and Heidi Toffler. Gingrich had planned the program and invited his favorite seers. I sat in a peanut gallery of young political consultants listening to the futurists’ overblown predictions of this and that.

Some years ago, when former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was still in his heyday, I attended a Republican meeting that featured presentations by two so-called “futurists.” I believe it was Alvin and Heidi Toffler.

Gingrich had planned the program and invited his favorite seers. I sat in a peanut gallery of young political consultants listening to the futurists’ overblown predictions of this and that.

Mercifully, the presentations finally ended and another campaign consultant and I followed the erstwhile presenters to the elevator.

The futurists were doubtless headed back to their rooms for some much-needed rest from the stresses of public soothsaying when my colleague and I began a little heckling. We wondered aloud if they could ply us with more practical information about the future, like what’s for dinner at the evening banquet.

Their pained expressions and avoidance of eye contact with the peanut gallery let me know this was as embarrassing for them as it had been boring for us. Yet, as I looked down from the glass elevator of loathing, I could see the Speaker beaming in the midst of an ocean of supplicants. His radiant face showed he was still pumped about pondering the future.

I’m older and wiser now and have cleaned up my act. I wouldn’t heckle the Tofflers in an elevator, though I’m still skeptical of futurists. But Newt is still pretty much the same. He’s eternally pumped about the future. The latest evidence for his passion is an online white paper titled “America’s Natural Majority.” You can download a copy of the PowerPoint-like document from www.newt.org.

Inside, on Page 1, readers are immediately hit with the payoff headline “Winning the Future.” Under that, the first bullet challenges: “The future must be won.”

The pretentious text then claims that America is confronted with five challenges that are collectively as difficult “as any America has challenged.” The paper identifies building blocks for what Gingrich sees as a “natural majority.” Despite the difficulties that Gingrich predicts for building this majority, most of the paper seems to be shouting, “Hey, this will be easy; everyone agrees with us.” The narrative consists mostly of poll results that seem to affirm that 70 percent or so of most Americans agree with conservative Republican positions on key issues.

Oh, if it were so easy!

Gingrich’s latest analysis — like all things he undertakes — is fascinating. It combines elements of Kevin Phillips’s 1969 classic, The Emerging Republican Majority, with Edward R. Tufte’s renowned guide to data presentation, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. The paper presents page after page of tedious polling results, using a clever graphic tool to summarize the results. The graphics depict large concentric circles representing the large “natural majority” position contrasted with much smaller circles across the page that mathematically depict the puny minority he simply labels as “The Left.”

Five big ideas are considered: terrorism, religion in public life, America’s role in the world, future competition with China and India, and entitlement programs. Under those headings, Gingrich marshals polling data from familiar sources to support his thesis that most Americans hold center-right views on these topics.

The effectiveness of his arguments is uneven. Polling presented on international terrorism is from Gallup surveys taken in early 2004. Opinions on some of these issues have probably evolved. Polls presented under the heading of preserving America’s “patriotic sense of itself” strangely stray off into survey results on school choice and welfare reform. Some well-known and contradictory poll results, such as Gallup’s annual education polls for Phi Delta Kappa, are ignored.

But, as always in Newt’s world, the show is worth the price of admission. I’m glad he’s still probing the big ideas. As Alvin Toffler was recently quoted saying, “You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things so that all the small things go in the right direction.”

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.