11/22/2011 03:52 pm ET Updated Jan 22, 2012

President Gingrich? Not as Scary as It Sounds

A recent surge in the polls has brought added scrutiny to the presidential ambitions of Newt Gingrich. While Republican primary voters seem to be willing to give the former House Speaker a second look, he remains a long shot to win the nomination.

But what would a Gingrich presidency look like? I would suggest that it would not be as radical as liberals fear or as revolutionary as conservatives hope. He would govern as a centrist conservative who would likely propose bold solutions to many problems.

Interviews with Gingrich, his aides and staff, shaped my views of the former House Speaker -- views that I discuss in my book,The Pact. His rich collection of private papers, housed at West Georgia State University, proved to be the most valuable resource. Perhaps in a moment of weakness, when a future presidential run seemed less likely, Gingrich granted me access to these papers. Surprisingly, the Gingrich that emerges from these pages is a practical politician, certainly more moderate then the caricature we are seeing on the campaign trail today.

As a student in the 1960s, Gingrich was more contrarian than conservative, more libertarian than liberal. He was a Republican more out of instinct than ideology. At Tulane University he defended the right of the school paper to publish obscene photographs. In 1968, he worked for the presidential campaign of liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller. Gingrich would not want his Tea Party backers to know this, but for most of his career Newt described himself as a "Teddy Roosevelt" Republican, stressing the need for a limited but strong federal government. He avoided talking about controversial social issues such as abortion or gay rights. "I would never vote against my conscience," Gingrich told his staff. "On the other hand, I also make it a habit to have relatively few things I feel bitterly moral about."

In 1983, after two lackluster terms in the House and no clear vision for the future, Gingrich turned to an unlikely source for inspiration. He traveled to New York, where he met with Richard Nixon. The disgraced former president suggested that Gingrich put together a group of "Young Turks" to challenge the moderate leadership of his party and start articulating an alternative message. Gingrich took the advice to heart, returned to Washington, and started recruiting young conservatives to spearhead a revolution within the Republican Party that culminated with Newt being elected House Speaker in 1995.

Even during this period, however, Gingrich made a distinction between politics -- the sometimes inflammatory words one has to say to win elections -- and governing -- the responsible steps that elected officials must take to solve problems. Throughout his career, the visionary, thoughtful policymaker has competed with the ruthless, take-no-prisoners, political strategist.

Gingrich has always been brilliant at arousing the Republican faithful by framing issues as choices between good and evil. Yet, you always get the sense that Gingrich never fully believed his own rhetoric. Intellectually, he understood that policies are often negotiated in the gray area between ideological extremes. Unfortunately for him, an entire generation of Republicans would come to power adopting his strategy and his message, while failing to appreciate the distinction between means and ends.

During the tense 1995 budget negotiations that resulted in two government shutdowns the key players in the Clinton White House viewed Gingrich as a practical politician trapped by the ideological leanings of his caucus. Gingrich's strategy was to talk tough in public, keeping the pressure on the White House, while trying to work out a compromise in private. In large meetings, surrounded by congressional colleagues and White House staffers, Gingrich postured, delivering what amounted to an ultimatum to the president. In smaller gatherings with just the president and his chief of staff, Gingrich set a different tone. "Behind the scenes he was working to avoid the shutdown," reflected White House Chief-of-Staff Leon Panetta. "In private conversations Gingrich would often say that he would like to get things done," Panetta recalled. "He was more accommodating in private than in public."

After the budget debacle, Gingrich distanced himself from the conservative wing of his own party and worked with President Clinton on passing a balanced budget bill. In 1997, he joined the president in developing the outlines of a bold and controversial plan for entitlement reform. The Lewinsky scandal, however, destroyed any hope of passing a bipartisan measure and it quickly died.

Gingrich has also been unfairly tagged as the architect of the Republican plan to impeach President Clinton. As Speaker, Gingrich was ultimately responsible for the impeachment effort. He did not, however, lead the charge. With the exception of an inflammatory speech before a GOPAC meeting in April 1998, Gingrich was remarkably restrained in his response to the scandal. It is unclear whether his restraint was the result of political calculation or fear that his own private life might come under scrutiny. In either case, he often nudged hardliners to tone down their rhetoric while manipulating the system to prevent the impeachment process from becoming too partisan. At one point, he proposed moving the impeachment proceedings from the highly-partisan Judiciary Committee to a special committee that he would appoint, but his caucus rebelled and the speaker backed down.

Gingrich knows better than anyone that promoting bipartisan plans for entitlement reform and championing compromise with Democrats is not an effective way to endear himself to Republican primary voters. So the partisan Newt will continue to lash out at the media for its "liberal" bias, attack "Occupy Wall Street" protestors as immoral, and condemn President Obama as incompetent. Unfortunately, the nation is seeing only one side of this very complicated and talented politician.

Subscribe to the Politics email.
How will Trump’s administration impact you?