Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House and presidential candidate, author of both fiction and non-fiction, and newly minted television panelist on Crossfire, spent some time with inFOCUS editor Shoshana Bryen to talk about how the United States can grapple with problems that may seem overwhelming in size and scope. Convinced that the solutions will be found largely outside Federal Government programs, Gingrich expressed confidence in the American people and American exceptionalism to carry the country forward.
iF: In his book, The End is Near and its Going to be Awesome, Kevin Williamson postulates that the difference between industry and government is that industry continually adapts. Government cannot adapt and isn’t allowed to fail, and people can’t opt out. Are Americans doomed to a government Leviathan that just layers new programs atop old programs?
Gingrich: As the hearings on Benghazi, IRS, and other failings indicate more and more clearly, we are trapped in a maze of decaying bureaucracy with systems that simply don’t work and bureaucrats that are amazingly unaccountable. The old order is going to continue to decay and disappoint. That will undermine the prison guards of the past and strengthen the pioneers of the future.
At the same time, the current policy ideas, political language, and focus of activities are failing to solve America’s problems. The American people have expressed their unhappiness with this gridlocked failure to solve problems by punishing each [political] party in turn. But this series of negative victories must not be confused with creating a stable governing coalition or creating a mandate for governing.
In the absence of positive solutions people can believe in, candidates, consultants and parties are reduced to emphasizing the negative in attack campaigns against the other side, which only works in the narrow sense that it may defeat the other candidate or the other party.
This decay of ideas and intellectual coherence into negative campaigns is nothing new. It is a natural byproduct of a period when there do not seem to be any breakouts and there are no big ideas around which to organize a positive campaign.
iF: You once drew ten lessons from successful efforts to design and implement welfare reform. Number 3 is, “Great change never starts with government.” Big ideas probably don’t start there either.
Gingrich: Change has to start on the outside. Then, if it succeeds, it will build momentum and build supporters and gradually it will be brought to the inside. But it always starts somewhere outside of Washington.
If you look around the country—here’s a great example—look at Google’s self-driving car and the implications that has for traffic fatalities, for those who are sight impaired, etc. Take a look at Udacity, which is a company whose committed goal is to reduce tuition by 90% for higher education. Take a look at regenerative medicine, which is potentially going to replace all of kidney dialysis simply by enabling you to grow, out of your own cells, a new kidney. That would eliminate all of the rejection medicine and eliminate all the need for dialysis.
I see breakouts beginning to occur. And they’re beginning to occur at the state level. If you look at what the State of Texas has done on prison reform—they’ve saved $2 billion, closed two prisons and currently have the lowest crime rate in modern Texas history. And so, there are innovations beginning to occur that have already made huge differences.
iF: The bankruptcy of Detroit throws domestic economics into sharp relief. In 2009, the Administration bailed out large corporations and their unions. Should there have been federal help for the people?
Gingrich: First of all, Detroit is an extraordinary tragedy. I’ve been writing about it for some 20 years. It is a combination of really bad politics, really bad public employee unions and a local political culture that had gone sour. In the city, for example, you had an industrialist who offered $200 million to build charter schools for one of the worst school systems in America, and he was promptly attacked as a racist. Now, you would think somebody who wanted to bring $200 million into your community would be seen in a positive light. But he was threatening the local power structure.
So, I think you have to recognize that if you have politicians who are determined to be destructive, and public employee unions who are determined to be irresponsible, and they join together to loot the city and in the process create a culture that rejects everything that is healthy or positive, it strikes me that it is going to be a disaster. And that’s what happened in Detroit.
It becomes very hard to turn around something that has become so disorganized. In that specific case, Detroit, I think it takes collapse. But in the long run, if you look at a number of reform mayors, it’s different. If you look at Cory Booker in Newark; at Johnson in Sacramento; and at Steve Goldschimidt in Indianapolis, you see you can have mayors who can make dramatic reforms. If you look at the impact of [Mayor Rudy] Giuliani on crime in New York, for example, it is extraordinary the speed at which they turned things around.
iF: In 2010, you called for the creation of “Free Cities”—Hong Kong-style free trade zones, developed from scratch according to agreements reached between the United States and the “receptive governments.” the Competitive Enterprise Institute suggested a 15-year moratorium on Federal taxes and regulation, leaving only State standards. How might that work in Detroit?
Gingrich: If you had a Governor and a President who were willing to be both cooperative and tough and you went to Detroit and said, “Look, here’s how much you’ve got to shrink your bureaucracy, and here’s how much you’ve got to cut your red tape and here’s how much you’ve got to focus on public safety. Now, if you’ll do those things, we’ll create a tax free zone for the whole city to encourage business to move in.” I think under that circumstance you can have an extraordinary impact.
We adopted fairly modest tax incentives for Washington, DC when I was Speaker [of the House]. But they had a profound impact on gentrifying the city and encouraging people to move back in. People generally agree—talk to [Democratic political consultant] Donna Brazille—and she’ll tell you I worked as hard as anybody she’d ever seen in the Speaker’s Office trying to help the capital. And I think that’s why—I really believe our national capital should have jobs and employment and safety and we worked at it very hard. That’s what people have to do.
iF: Is there a role for government in the “reinvention” of cities as the manufacturing base changes? How can we ensure a match between the students leaving school and the jobs industry will have available?
Gingrich: We need a nation-wide adult re-education and adult retraining program. Almost certainly involving online education and almost certainly involving mentoring and apprenticeships. And we need them across the board, because the jobs of the past are disappearing and most people who are losing those jobs aren’t prepared for the next cycle of employment. And so, this doesn’t only apply to Detroit, it applies to the whole country.
But I also think if you look at the idea that we pay people up to 99 weeks for being unemployed—that’s a mistake. Why don’t we require a learning attachment to those 99 weeks? You know, that’s almost enough time to get an Associates Degree in college. It is really destructive to give people 99 weeks to do nothing while you are taking care of them.
iF: The 1996 Welfare Reform Act returned the share of federal spending on the program to each state in the form of “block grants.” You wrote later, “There was just one problem with the 1996 reforms: they only reformed one federal program.”
Gingrich: Virtually everything that involves domestic policy could be managed better at the State and Local level than at the Federal level. I would very much establish a 10th Amendment Project to move decisions out of Washington and move bureaucracies out of Washington.
iF: Is there sentiment to do that?
Gingrich: It would take a new majority to do it. But I think you could build a majority that would do it and I think the country would be very much for it.
iF: Can people run on that in 2014?
Gingrich: Yes, I think so. If they were to put together a new Contract [referencing the 1994 Contract for America] a 10th Amendment plank could be part of that. If you look at how much disrepute Washington is in right now, moving power out of Washington would be a pretty positive campaign slogan.
iF: The role of the courts in expanding government is crucial. “Legislation from the bench,” circumvented the question of abortion and same sex marriage. Has the judiciary become simply a reflection of popular opinion?
Gingrich: We are very much in a period of “legislating from the bench.” But there are lots of things that can be done, from holding hearings on that topic, to passing laws to restrict access to the courts for some topics, to directly repudiating the courts’ decisions. There is a lot of literature on the degree to which the country has the ability to bring the courts back under control—if they want to.
But I think there’s a general pattern by which the elites frankly are happy to have the courts do a lot of things they may believe in but not be able to do on their own.
So again, elections are the key. These are all legitimately political challenges that require a commitment to winning elections. And to win the election, you need to win the arguments. And I think you will hear more about these things. If you go back and look at what people like Rick Perry were saying during the last campaign, I think the arguments are there and I think there is interest in the subject.
We need a national conversation on a great many things, including foreign policy. Look at the recent prison breaks [freeing al Qaeda members in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan] and look at the U.S. being so worried that in 19 countries we closed our Embassies. Those are not signs of victory. Those are signs that our strategies are in real trouble and need to be rethought.
iF: I’m almost sorry this issue of inFOCUS is on domestic policy—I’d love to pursue that line of conversation further.
Gingrich: Call back when you’re interested in that.
iF: Finally, you have called America “A Nation Like No Other.” Would you talk to inFOCUS readers about what makes our country exceptional and why it’s not simply bragging or hubris to say so?
Gingrich: What is exceptional about the United States is the unique liberty we give to people. That’s a key part of the whole process of recognizing ourselves as exceptional. It is that fact of 300 million people being given a chance to pursue happiness and to be creative in a way that is really remarkable.
I do think we’re in grave danger both culturally and bureaucratically of losing that uniqueness.
iF: Can we still turn it around?
Gingrich: Sure. If you have a big enough turnaround in society it is. The classic case is Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Great Britain was collapsing, the welfare state was destroying it, and socialism was eliminating the entrepreneurial spirit. She not only won an election, but she won an argument. In the ensuing decades, she fundamentally changed the scene. She did it even more than Ronald Reagan did—because she did it on a bigger scale.
iF: So you’re an optimist?
Gingrich: Absolutely. Strategically, people who bet against the American people have consistently lost.