Listening to Newt Gingrich is still like trying to take a sip out of a fire hose. Make that a fire hose on steroids. Ten years since the insurgent Republican from Georgia became Speaker of the House and six years since he left, he has updated his message of reform - and with no less of a sense of urgency.
In his latest book, he has put forth a new Contract With America, a 10-point manifesto with so many subparts it really contains 17 pieces. Part V alone calls for a new system of civil justice, a simplified tax code, better math and science teaching, investment in "the scientific revolutions that are going to transform our world," and transformation of healthcare.
"In a sense, you could argue that what I am trying to do is refill the gas tank" of reform ideas, Mr. Gingrich told a Monitor breakfast Tuesday.
Is he contemplating another run for office, even president? "My experience as a historian is that you have people who ride tides and you have people who just hang out," he said. "The people who hang out, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.... I am having a good time and we will see what happens over time."
In short, he seems to know that he would be a long shot for his party's nomination - especially with a sitting Republican president and top political aide who could wield formidable influence in the nominating process. Gingrich puts the odds at 9 to 1 that President Bush and Karl Rove could get their pick nominated.
Gingrich's potential presidential ambitions seem almost beside the point. In other forums, particularly to Republican audiences, he has warned that what was done unto the Democrats in 1994 could be done unto the Republicans, even in 2006. When the Democrats woke up after the '94 vote, their 40-year rule in the House had ended in a political tsunami.
Gingrich is glad the House Republicans pulled back from a proposed rule change that would have allowed indicted members of leadership to keep serving. But more than that, he says, Republicans must remain the reform party or they stop making sense.
Anything that jeopardizes the Republicans' status as the reform party "is more dangerous for us than it is for Democrats," he says, adding that the GOP majority comes from the followers of former third-party candidate Ross Perot who want "real reform." "To the degree that we are seen as no longer the reform party, we create space either for a third party or for people to just stay at home."
The former speaker warns that the Republican Party is an "internally oriented party" too focused on Washington. "You see that, frankly, in the president's speeches on Social Security, which are Washington-oriented speeches, trying to figure out some way to meet CBO [Congressional Budget Office] scoring as though five bureaucrats sitting in a room in the Ford Building define the future of America."
Gingrich also takes on the issue of God in the public square - and gives no quarter to a journalist who questions his moral credentials, given his three marriages.
"I tell you up front, I am a sinner; I suspect you are, too," he shot back. "Now that we have that out of the way, let's talk about whether as a historian I can talk about how the Declaration of Independence was written, what Thomas Jefferson stands for, and whether it is good for American families to go on a walking tour of Washington to see historically the absolute fact that the Founding Fathers were deeply committed to the idea our rights come from God."
A few more sips from the fire hose:
• On the balanced budget: "I am pretty enthusiastic about getting back to a balanced budget. I think it is essentially a moral, not an economic, issue. You can sustain deficits for a long time if your economy is growing. But politicians need a barrier that explains the word 'no.' "
• On national security: "I am frankly a little worried about the 2006 budget, because I think we are starting to play bunchball, in that we are getting sucked into Iraq like it is the only problem. And we are doing that for budget reasons, not national security reasons. I think China is still real. I think the scale of the Russian R&D program is still real. I think North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran are all real."
• On taxes: "I would make abolishing the death tax permanently one of the three or four highest values in terms of legislation, because it goes absolutely at the heart of the Democratic Party's ability to say no.... If I had to choose between making [Bush's] tax cuts permanent and some kind of complex tax reform, I'd go for making the tax cuts permanent. I think it is a more winnable, more explainable thing."
• On which government programs to eliminate: "Why is NASA running the space shuttle? Just ask yourself, why would you have thousands of people sitting around Cape Kennedy, waiting for the shuttle to be relaunched? And to what degree does the scale of government bureaucracy tell you a lot about why NASA has not been more effective in moving America into space? I'm very much for a space program but you know, we built the transcontinental railroad with government incentives but without a government bureaucracy of railroad builders."