Commentary Magazine


Winning the Future by Newt Gingrich

Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America
by Newt Gingrich
Regnery. 243 pp. $27.95

Newt Gingrich, an inescapable political presence in the mid-90’s and a largely forgotten figure in the years since, is back in business and very much on stage again. A fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a lobbyist/consultant as head of the new Gingrich Group, he is turning up on the television talk shows. The word is out that he might make a run for President in 2008. And now he has this book, my copy of which has a dust jacket bearing the message “New York Times Bestseller,” which it actually was for seven weeks.

The subtitle is an echo of Gingrich’s original “Contract with America.” This 1994 document was the platform on which most Republicans ran for Congress in that year; it gave them a landslide win and control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. Between the midterm election years of 1990 and 1994, the Republican vote rose by 9 million and the Democratic vote declined by 1 million—a swing of 10 million, an all-time record for two consecutive non-presidential campaigns.

With Gingrich installed as Speaker, and President Clinton adjusting his notions about what worked in politics, substantial chunks of the Contract were ultimately translated into law: welfare reform, lower taxes, increased defense spending, a balanced budget. It is true that some other provisions, including congressional term limits, never gained much traction. Still, Gingrich was on top of the world in 1995, and was named Time‘s Man of the Year.

His subsequent downfall astonished the political establishment, and even in retrospect remains something of a conundrum. It does seem clear that he created enemies with the imperious management style he brought to the speakership, resulting in an almost-successful coup attempt against him by senior House Republicans in 1997. In the 1998 election, he predicted a Republican gain of 20 to 30 seats, but instead the party lost five seats, and the sniping against him escalated. He was still Speaker of the House, and his party still had a fair majority (eleven votes)—but instead of riding out the storm, he abruptly resigned as Speaker and retired as the representative of Georgia’s affluent sixth district, where his electability was never in doubt.

Possibly he was bored, or just fed up with political infighting. Possibly he wanted to spend some time making money. In any event, he opted for a new career.

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Gingrich’s 1994 Contract had a built-in unifying theme: it was a declaration of war against entrenched Democratic liberalism, an all too visible enemy that millions of Americans had learned to loathe. But no such theme is sustainable today. Republicans control the White House, both houses of Congress, more state legislatures than do the Democrats, a majority of state governorships.

Inevitably, Gingrich’s new Contract, as it is set out here, appears less focused than the 1994 version and broadly consistent with what the White House is already hoping to accomplish. It comes at you with an avalanche of proposals, some persuasive, some troublesome, many developed at length, others perfunctory (e.g., the three-page chapter on helping the disabled to lead active lives). Among the major entries are the following.

  • An opening chapter on the war against terrorism calls for tripling the size of our intelligence operation (with a stress on much more “human intelligence”), reaching into the Middle East with a major television presence, and substantially bolstering our investment in new military technology. Gingrich does not deal with the staggering costs of such a program, but the idea as presented is nevertheless compelling—and in any case, the money would be instantly available if jihad brought another disaster to the United States.
  • The country’s wobbly Social Security system is the subject of the second chapter, which makes a good—if strangely incomplete—case for the private accounts being pursued by the President. Gingrich’s own preferred version is a proposal put forward last summer by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senator John Sununu of New Hampshire. It would enable an average worker to put 6.4 percent of taxable income (up to the Social Security ceiling, currently $87,900) into the new accounts.

The higher returns to workers exercising this option would gradually eliminate the system’s unfunded liability while also promising expanded benefits and, in the long run, a reduction in payroll taxes. An associated “safety net” would assure that no worker received less than what is guaranteed under present arrangements. Gingrich notes that that these claims for Ryan-Sununu have been supported by the Social Security system’s chief actuary.

  • The third chapter, titled “The Centrality of Our Creator in Defining America,” is a passionate call for a war on the judges and educators who have barred public expressions of oaths and prayers mentioning God, and in general have limited the role of religion in public life. Gingrich wants this role expanded, and along the way argues for public acceptance of America as an essentially Christian society. (Survey data put those identifying themselves as Christian at 80 percent or more.) He makes the now familiar case that the courts have persistently distorted the First Amendment’s establishment clause, demanding complete extirpation of religion from the public square when the clause only prohibits an officially established religion.
  • The fourth chapter proposes to shrink the power of an out-of-control judiciary (and not only with respect to religion). Gingrich wants Congress to pass legislation explicitly rejecting the concept of judicial supremacy, i.e., the idea that the Supreme Court is the final arbiter of what is constitutional. If the Court were to rule that a federal law was unconstitutional, he would have the legislative and executive branches pass the law a second time.

In any such struggle, Gingrich contends, the judges would inevitably lose. One weapon he would employ against them is the Constitution’s Article III, which provides that federal judges “shall hold their offices during good behavior.” Over the years, this clause has occasionally been invoked to get rid of judges guilty of financial corruption. Gingrich suggests that we now use it to terminate activist judges who translate their own political preferences into constitutional principles.

  • The next chapter serves up proposals for reform of the immigration process. Clumsily titled “Patriotic Immigration,” it argues that we must make it much harder for Mexicans and others to “sneak in,” but joins the President in recommending that guest workers be allowed to enter the country easily and legally.

Gingrich also wants the states to go back to the serious “Americanization” programs that helped immigrants assimilate in past generations. Citing arguments by the political scientist Samuel Huntington, he opposes dual citizenship and massive bilingual-education programs. But, ignoring Huntington—whose data demonstrate that, even after three or four generations, Mexicans have resisted assimilation—he takes it for granted that large-scale Mexican immigration is necessary and desirable.

  • Another major chapter offers proposals designed to prevent our country from being eaten alive by the voracious health-care sector, now accounting for 14 percent of gross domestic product and rising. Gingrich puts forward a cluster of ideas: tax-exempt health savings accounts, technologies to increase patients’ knowledge of their problems and treatment, an online drug-purchasing system, major speedups in the time required to get new drugs and treatments from research labs to the marketplace, worldwide sharing of medical advances, and—of all things—a “medical tourism” program designed to bring foreigners to our land when they need the best available treatment.

An overall claim made for these particular reforms is that, in creating informed health-care consumers and giving them greater responsibility for their own treatment, we would finally get some competition in this sector, and in the process gain huge cost reductions. Although Gingrich is surely overrating the extent to which Americans can take charge of their own health care, it certainly seems plausible that the system would benefit from increased competition.

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Conservative readers of Winning the Future will come away with strong talking points on issues dear to them. But many conservatives who essentially agree with Gingrich on the issues are nevertheless likely to rate the book a dreadful disappointment. Its critique of existing arrangements is often informed and sensible, but its recommendations are often problematic, and their difficulties tend to go unacknowledged.

In his discussion of Social Security, for instance, a maddening omission is any elaboration of the sizable transition costs associated with Ryan-Sununu. Readers are told at the end of every chapter that “more information” is available at Gingrich’s website (www.newt.org/winningthefuture). There you could find a link to an article by Peter Ferrara of the Institute for Policy Innovation that would give you a sense of how the Ryan-Sununu plan might actually work. Ferrara puts the transition costs at $3.8 trillion, and helps the reader see it as the price of eliminating the system’s $11 trillion of unfunded liabilities. But it does seem odd that Gingrich, or, rather, his ghostwriters—identified in the acknowledgments as “The Book Team”—barely touch on the transition costs and neglect to make the case for paying them in their own words.

Similarly, when he turns to the judiciary, Gingrich is devastating in his critique of judicial activism, and fascinating in his argument that the Warren court and its successors have been misreading Marbury v. Madison, the 1803 decision invariably cited as the solid rock supporting judicial review. But Gingrich’s favored solution would appear to present some large problems. If Republican regimes could readily fire activist judges, equating their imperfect understanding of the Constitution with “bad behavior,” what would prevent a Congress controlled by liberal Democrats from firing strict-constructionist judges rated insufficiently attuned to the “living Constitution”? Would the country really be better off with these new rules?

Seriously magnifying these problems in the book’s content is its wretched style. Any argument can be trivialized and undermined by bad writing, and this recurrently happens to Gingrich here. Sentences repeatedly fail to parse. Mysterious pronouncements abound. (“A reasonable estimate would be that this war will last until 2070.”) Sizable stretches of the text read like Power Point presentations.

Even the book’s basic organization is botched. The introduction lists five proposals and instructs the reader: “This is what needs to be done.” The first chapter then starts off by listing ten “key provisions” of the new Contract, each presumably needing to be implemented. But the ten provisions fail to include some of the book’s most important proposals (including the effort to discipline the judiciary). Furthermore, they do not match up with the sixteen chapters, each of which bears its own proposal.

So Newt Gingrich is presenting us with yet another conundrum. He is plainly a serious, highly intelligent man. He has a Ph.D. in modern European history and a strategic vision worth rendering seriously. This book is not serious. How could he have put his signature on it? More to the point, why didn’t he sit down and write it himself? The pity is all the greater because, in this ambitious package of ideas and proposals, a few deserve to be heard in a more convincing form.

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About the Author

Dan Seligman is a contributing editor of Forbes.




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