In the wake of the public feud between Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele and radio host Rush Limbaugh over who is the head of the Republican Party, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s widely panned Republican response to President Obama’s joint Congressional address, a spotlight is glaring on the GOP’s standing in the Obama era. While 68 percent of Americans surveyed in a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll have a positive view of President Obama, just 26 percent have a favorable view of the Republican Party.
In an exclusive interview with ESSENCE.com, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, chairman of the think tank American Solutions, admits that his party has its share of problems and deserved to get “fired” in the last election. But, sipping black coffee at a conference table in his no-frills downtown Washington office, the GOP veteran also told ESSENCE.com why he thinks a new Republican Party is on the brink of emerging.
ESSENCE.COM: You’ve been an advocate for the Republican Party reaching out more to African-Americans. Do you see the election of Michael Steele as RNC chairman as a sign of the Party’s interest in achieving this?
NEWT GINGRICH: I think that a number of members reached the conclusion that we had to develop a much broader party with a much broader appeal. Of the candidates who were running, Michael Steele presented the best hope of communicating that you could be a Republican and be part of a broader coalition than the historic Republican Party. I would expect Chairman Steele to be comfortable going to the NAACP, the Urban League and any place in America talking to people about why having a private sector-oriented party that had lower taxes was in your interest. Or why, for example, from the standpoint of many inner city African-American parents, having the right-to-school choice so your child could go to a school that was safe and get a good education mattered to you.
ESSENCE.COM: Many of our readers viewed his election as tokenism, or feel that he’s using hip-hop slang to sell the Party to them rather than ideas.
GINGRICH: Look, if he doesn’t affect change in the Party it’s a token. If he affects change in the Party, then it’s an advance. I was flying to Phoenix last week, and one of the attendants was an African-American woman who was very conservative. She was frustrated because she felt a desire for lower taxes, [an emphasis on] work ethic, and the opportunity to create a small business. She thought that if the ideas weren’t automatically labeled “Republican-Democrat,” and you were just having a conversation, then we’d have an amazing percentage of people who agreed with us.
ESSENCE.COM: It doesn’t seem like many in the Party share your optimistic view about Steele as RNC Chair. After his public spat with Rush Limbaugh, nobody exactly rallied around him. How do you think he’s doing among other Republicans?
GINGRICH: I think a lot of Republican leaders, including myself, have said Rush Limbaugh is not the leader of the Republican Party. And in that sense we agree with Steele. Steele went a little further than that and attacked Rush in a way that was not particularly productive. But I think that’s part of learning how to be a national leader. Steele had never before been in the spotlight until a month ago. He’s going to have to learn you have to pick your words very carefully, you have to have thought through what you’re trying to achieve, and you’ve got to make sure how you’re doing it.
ESSENCE.COM: You say Rush Limbaugh isn’t the leader of the Republican Party. Is there is a clear leader in your opinion?
GINGRICH: No, that’s the whole point, when you don’t have a president or a presidential nominee. John Boehner’s sort of a leader, but so is Eric Cantor who is much younger. Bobby Jindal is kind of a leader, but so are Mark Sanford and Tim Pawlenty and Sarah Palin. There are probably 30 to 50 people who are sort of leaders, and Michael Steele is clearly one of them.
ESSENCE.COM: The Republican Party isn’t tracking well with Americans in general right now, while President Obama has a high approval rating. Why do you think the Republican Party is losing support?
GINGRICH: First of all, in that same NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, both Pelosi and Reid had negatives. And the President’s a brand-new elected President. The country has a deep desire for him to succeed. Anybody who does not want the President of the United States to succeed is irrational. Furthermore he’s attractive, he’s got a nice family, he’s articulate, and he represents a sense of hope. So I think he ought to be fairly popular. I would be cautious about over-reading polls.
ESSENCE.COM: Polling aside then, how is the message of smaller government going to connect with Americans when so many are unemployed and struggling financially?
GINGRICH: I think it will connect. Remember, the Republican Party right now is in the shadow of the Bush administration. We’re in the last stage of digesting the tummy ache of having bad Congressional leadership; the worst Treasury Secretary in history; a bad economy. The Republican Party got fired for good reason; it deserved it.
ESSENCE.COM: So how do you think the Republican Party can repair its image?
GINGRICH: I think the Republican Party has to go back to basics, and we ought to be saying, “Here’s how we will solve the problem.” At American Solutions, we found 12 major policies that we think will lead to more economic growth, more take-home pay, greater opportunities, and we’re prepared to have very broad debate on those. You’ll see it’s different from Bush, and it’s different from Obama. I don’t think the Party which was defeated is going to be rehabilitated. I think it’s going to be replaced by a Republican Party which is much more ideas-oriented, much more innovative.
ESSENCE.COM: What you described isn’t what we’re seeing now. The general idea seems to be the same complaints about government spending and a push for more tax cuts. Do you think a clear, specific plan has been articulated?
GINGRICH: Not yet. It’s something that we’re trying to get people to articulate. I don’t think you can be vague when you have a real crisis. If you have a choice of going to two doctors, and one of them has medicine and the other only has slogans, you probably don’t stay with the one who has slogans. So Obama, with the budget he just put out, he at least has a plan. I may not agree with it, but at least there’s a plan there. I think the Republicans have an obligation, and we will as we go through the budget debate, to offer an alternative that’s fundamentally different.
ESSENCE.COM: You told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that you probably would run for President in 2012 if you felt it was necessary. What did you mean by “if it’s necessary?”
GINGRICH: If you go up to somebody and say to them, “We really think there are enough problems that need to be solved that we need you to run,” then you have to take that seriously. Now whether or not that happens, I have no idea. I believe we need a dialogue in 2009 about what America needs to do in the Obama presidency. We don’t need a dialogue about how to replace Obama in the year 2013. That conversation you can have in four years. When we have the unemployment numbers we had last Friday, we have to have a discussion now about what we’re going to do to fix this economy. Any political ambition ought to be a long way down the road.