A massive article by Matt Bai appearing this Sunday in The New York Times Magazine appears rather ill-timed. Titled "Newt. Again," it portrays former Speaker Gingrich as the prime idea man and rallying point for the Republican party just as his ideas and party appear more out-of-it than ever in the aftermath of the Bobby Jindal (a Newt favorite) response to Obama's big Tuesday speech.
Still, it somehow raises the hope or fear that Newt (he is mainly known by one name, like Che, the article proposes) will run for president in 2012, completing a "Nixonian" comeback.
The Times article reveals that Republicans claim that the conservative movement's "thunderbolts" are emerging from Gingrich's office, not the oldline Heritage Foundation or Cato Institute: He is "at the zenith of influence in conservative Washington." Frank Luntz says he is the one guy he would consult on bringing the party back: "This guy would be the perfect 'Behind the Music' story, because he was on top, and then he lost it all, and now he's back and bigger than ever."
One might add: Literally, although Bai improbably claims that Newt's waistline has only expanded "modestly."
Bai describes what are called "Newtgrams" - his daily emails bearing policy ideas or advice. But as the article goes on, the puffing up of Gingrich as "idea man" falls apart as the trail of his ideas, and defeats, emerge. We learn that one of his key email ideas proposed that instead of a stimulus plan the party ought to propose a four month payroll-tax holiday. Another idea: no personal or corporate income tax and no FICA tax for a full year.
Also: a space-based air traffic control idea that would, by the way, he dreams, "cut the number of unionized air-traffice controllers by 7,000."
Then, in talking to Bai -- who hails Newt's brain power -- Gingrich gets excited about the wisdom in the 1913 Girl Scouts Manual, and interrupts the interview to ask his aide to order four copies of it from Amazon.
And his response to the collapse of the economy partly caused by lax regulation is to regulate it less, calling for, among other thing, the repeal of Sarbannes-Oxley,
Then there is this from Newt, which sounds more like Yogi Berra than Descartes: "Someone once said to me, if you don't leave, you can't come back, because you've never left."
Bai finally concludes that there is "a randomness to his brilliance....Gingrich may be an 'idea factory'....but it sometimes seems like a factory working on triple shifts without a floor manager or anyone keeping the books."
Gingrich boasts that he doesn't build "opposition" movements - "I build the next governing majority." But if anything, the article reveals Gingrich not as the principled GOP moderate it first sketches but just another blowhard - the guy who left office with an 11% approval rating and admitted cheated on his second wife while denouncing Bill Clinton's affair. After arguing that Republicans need to work with Obama to mount their popular comeback, he flipflops after a few days into the new era, deriding the new president's "left-wing policies" and "Nixonian" abuses of power while applauding GOP lawmakers' near- unanimous opposition - this from the man who said he was not for "oppositional" politics.
Yet Bai reports widespread talk in Washington of "Newt 2012," with no less than Grover Norquist putting him among the top 5 contenders. Gingrich says that even if he reached the presidency it would be "a secondary achievement....I think I'm closer to Benjamin Franklin than to George Washington. I'm a contributor to my country and to my times."
Greg Mitchell's new book, his ninth, is "Why Obama Won," which includes much HufffPost-related material. He is editor of Editor and Publisher.