Newt Gingrich took pains to wrap himself in the mantle of Ronald Reagan during last week’s Fox debate in Iowa. He reminded viewers that Reagan was once called “not electable,” just as he sometimes is. He went on to point out he had “accomplished conservative goals” as speaker in the 1990s, including welfare reform and a balanced budget. “I am someone who campaigned with Reagan,” he concluded.
But at the same time Newt tries to wrap himself in the Reagan mantle, he also exhibits another nostalgic tic that should give conservatives agita. Newt is an unabashed admirer of the Roosevelts — Theodore and Franklin. Together those two presidents embodied the Progressive Era and the New Deal, developments which dramatically expanded Washington’s powers and radically changed the expectations Americans had of government.
Just last week, Newt made clear his desire to emulate the two men when he told Newsweek magazine that, in handling intractable problems such as poverty, “we’re gonna experiment and experiment and experiment until we break through.” When Newsweek’s Peter Boyer dryly noted that this might “not please the ear of a small-government conservative,” Gingrich didn’t flinch: “It makes me, in some ways, like the two Roosevelts.”
Such talk drives many conservatives to distraction. In early December, Larry Kudlow of CNBC confronted Newt with his constant invocations of Teddy Roosevelt by pointing out that the man bolted the GOP in 1912 to run as a third-party presidential candidate, wanted to raise taxes, and was an inveterate regulator and a “government activist.” Kudlow went so far as to bluntly ask: “Are you actually the conservative candidate that so many people are hoping you are?”
Gingrich’s response was equivocal. “Well, first of all, there are a lot of different Teddy Roosevelts. He was a very complicated man,” he explained. “The Theodore Roosevelt as president is very different than the Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 running for president on a very aggressive big-government strategy. . . . Here was a guy who, as a pragmatic person looked around and said, ‘I want to fix these things. I want to find solutions.’ He’s also a great American nationalist.”
But Newt’s admiration for Teddy pales before the deference he shows his cousin, FDR. In his 1995 book, To Renew America, Newt called Franklin Roosevelt “probably the greatest president of the 20th Century.” In subsequent speeches that can be found in the archives of C-SPAN, Gingrich sometimes dropped the “probably.” The irony is that the same man who has slammed Barack Obama for being a “food-stamp president” should be such a passionate admirer of FDR, who created the first federal food-stamp program in 1939. (The program was suspended during wartime in 1943, only to be revived by John F. Kennedy after he took office in 1961.)
Newt’s defenders point out that Ronald Reagan was also a great admirer of FDR’s leadership and frequently praised him. Yes, but Reagan was an unabashed liberal during Roosevelt’s tenure and voted for him in four presidential elections. His nostalgia was formed through a personal bond with the wartime leader that never faded. And when it came time to hang a portrait of a former president in the White House, Reagan chose that great tax-cutter and Yankee conservative, Calvin Coolidge — whom Roosevelt viewed with contempt and derision.
Somehow I don’t see a President Gingrich hanging a portrait of Silent Cal in a place of honor. It’s not that Newt Gingrich isn’t a conservative. It’s that he is, like Teddy Roosevelt, “a very complicated man.” For every conservative instinct Newt has, he also possesses a radical impulse for action and experimentation that is at its heart the instinct of liberals or even revolutionaries. Voters sizing up Newt would do well to consider both sides of his outsize personality — the one that reverts back to Reaganism on many specific issues, along with the one that pines for the government dynamism of the Roosevelts.