At one time in his life Newt Gingrich was at home in the academic world, perhaps even moreso than he ever was politically. On Tuesday he selected the small town of Salisbury, Maryland and the campus that he claimed gave birth to the Contract With America to begin a new phase of his Presidential campaign.
Gone were the big banners, the line of welcoming politicians, and the press entourage which followed him from stop to stop when he was the leading anti-Romney in the 2012 Presidential race. Instead, if it weren’t for the small “Newt 2012” logo buried in a corner of the campus flier announcing “An Afternoon With Newt Gingrich” you may not have even known he was still in the race. He didn’t even charge the College Republicans $50 for a picture at the small gathering he held with them afterward.
And while the preparation for the event was typical of a campaign stop – “We didn’t know about this until 8:00 yesterday morning,” the president of the local College Republicans breathlessly told me – the intimate room selected and the apolitical nature of the invited audience gave this the feel of a lecture. It certainly wasn’t something I pictured as part of a Presidential campaign, particularly when compared to an incident I encountered the week before.
On Friday I was called by an acquaintance of mine, a longtime political consultant who is actually working on a Congressional campaign but dabbling with Rick Santorum’s Presidential effort. He was looking for both ideas on a local location to hold a possible Santorum event before Maryland’s April 3 primary and, more importantly, to gauge the mood of our local elected officials – were any of them backing Santorum? he asked. In fact, the affable County Council president I spoke to on his behalf confessed he was leaning more toward Gingrich but would be happy to welcome Rick as well.
Instead, as I write this it appears Santorum will “plant his flag” out in Wisconsin, abandoning Maryland and Washington D.C. to the “inevitable” Mitt Romney. Since my rural part of Maryland is a backwater for state races, let alone national ones, I would have expected a Santorum appearance to draw a huge crowd from miles around, with a few politicians getting face time welcoming the Senator and, more importantly, kind words on why we should “pick Rick” from the man himself. In short, the typical political rally we’ve come to expect.
Yet Newt decided to come here, even as the odds are he will finish no better than third in Maryland. Certainly he’s just about out of money and letting staff go, pinning his dwindling hopes on pressing convention delegates directly if Romney doesn’t achieve the magic number of 1,144 before the convention. But he’s not out of ideas, and at the Salisbury speech he wistfully noted “I have been trying to wrestle with what I have not been able to communicate” in this campaign, adding, “I got sucked into normal politics, which is frankly…a waste of time.”
Instead, Newt captivated the 200 or so students in the room – the event was not open to the general public, so the audience was nearly all college-age – with bold initiatives: challenging ourselves to go back into space, making an effort to be more energy independent, and investing our time and treasure into research on brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and autism, among many others. These were big ticket items which departed from the normal campaign fare of more petty issues and “gotcha” sound bites. And it was obvious that Newt had a significant comfort level with the give-and-take of a well-behaved audience that likely had a number of members on the opposite side of the political spectrum, a group which asked questions accordingly. Yet it was a setting which freed Newt to not talk about his opponents, except a couple times in passing.
While Newt showed some disdain in his remarks for those who thought of him as just an “idea guy,” personally that’s what brought me to admire his thinking over the years. I’ve grown to disagree with him on a number of points based on his desire for federal solutions rubbing against my philosophy that government should be limited, but at the same time it seemed like he wasn’t necessarily a politician who was just trying to survive from election to election by bringing home the goodies to his district but one who was trying to bring about fundamental change to America. There’s no question America was ready for change in the last election, and they may be even more so this time around.
But Newt won’t be the guy to bring it. Instead, while he maintains the skeleton of a Presidential campaign on the outside, the attitude he seemed to exude while addressing a rapt audience of college students suggests he may now be a better teacher than leader. A movement needs a little of both to survive and just because Newt isn’t going to be president doesn’t mean he won’t have a role in the revolution to come.
Michael Swartz is a Maryland-based freelance writer and blogger who writes at monoblogue. He can be reached at [email protected]