Last week, we solicited your questions for Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House whose latest book is “Real Change: From the World That Fails to the World That Works.” His answers, below, are comprehensive, measured, and often fascinating. I think this is easily one of the best Q&A’s we’ve had on this blog. (Note: if you are a hardcore liberal Democrat, try turning off that part of your identity for a few minutes and read his answers as objectively as you can; it will likely improve the experience.) He covers the waterfront — politics, healthcare, education, and even his favorite guilty snack. Thanks to him for the candor, effort, and intelligence, and thanks to all of you for the good questions.
I’d like to thank the New York Times, Steven Levitt, Stephen Dubner, and all of you for affording me the opportunity to participate in this forum.
My first response is a long one. It answers a number of questions and comments about whether I’ve changed my fundamental approach to politics, allegedly from one that emphasizes partisanship to one that emphasizes unifying issues described in my book, Real Change, and in the work we’re doing at American Solutions.
I don’t think my approach to politics has significantly changed. However, a few things bear noting that make my role today different than when I was speaker of the House.
First, since I no longer hold elected office and am not a party leader in the same way I was as speaker, I don’t carry the same political responsibilities as I did then.
Second, growing older and becoming a grandfather changes one’s outlook to some degree.
Third, we were in a real battle in 1994 for change. I considerably underestimated how unhappy the Democrats, who had been in charge for the last 40 years, were going to be in the minority. Having been there myself for the previous 16 years, I should have known.
This all being said, I believe my fundamental approach to politics remains the same: find unifying issues that are historically correct, right for America, and supported by the vast majority of the American people, and rally the country to overwhelm the entrenched power structures that oppose them. This was the strategy behind the Contract with America, and it is part of a larger strategy that we are now employing at American Solutions.
Remember, every item in the Contract was supported by the vast majority of the American people, but opposed by the Democratic leadership. If you have never done so, I urge you to go and read the Contract for yourself, here. Ask yourself if it is really the partisan document some of you have described, or if it was something you did not expect. I think you will find it to be a positive, non-partisan agenda that most Americans wanted but could not get from the Democratic Party.
Also, much of what was described by the media as the increased partisanship of the early 1990s was simply the House Republicans beginning to assert themselves against the Democratic majority. Remember, from 1930 to 1994 there were only two elections in which House Republicans had a majority (1946 and 1958). This led to a minority party culture among House Republicans that told them the way to succeed was to keep quiet, allow the Democratic majority to dictate the agenda, and maybe they’ll throw you a bone every once in a while.
I deliberately set out to shatter that pattern of behavior because I passionately believed the country was being ill-served by the leadership of Congress, and I knew they could never be defeated unless the House Republicans were willing to take them head-on. This was a dramatic break in behavior from the past 60 years. The media called this effort partisanship; we called it finally standing for something. And I think the results of the 1994 election are powerful evidence that the American people saw it our way.
Now, to some specific questions…
Q: Has George W. Bush been good for the conservative movement?
A: I’m not going to make a judgment about President Bush. History will decide. In the last 7 years, the conservative movement has experienced some growing pains. The good news is that the movement continues to grow after having grown dramatically in previous decades. A bigger movement requires more leaders and stronger leaders. It is simply bigger than any one person or office.
Q: Do you think that corporations have too much power in government, through lobbyists and monetary incentives? What should be done to correct what I see as an imbalance of power between voters and the rich/powerful?
A: There is a direct relationship between the size, influence, and power of a government and the influence of lobbyists on that government. If we are serious about limiting the ability of lobbyists to dictate government policy, we should be serious about limiting the size and scope of the government’s power. Until that happens, the wealthy and powerful will always be able to have influence through lobbying.
Q: We constantly are bombarded with talk of the U.S. promoting democracy abroad. What about the promotion of separation of church and state, the equality of all men (and women), and other “rights” that make democracy run so well in the U.S.? Would you say that the combination is the key to any sustainable true democracy?
A: In the American conception, as stated powerfully by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, all are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. This proposition was among the most radical in history and it turned on its head the way in which people were governed. We no longer conceived of individual rights as coming from a king or monarch or dictator. In 1776, we asserted the self-evident truth that rights came from God to the individual, and that collectively, the people loaned power to their elected leaders. It is this self-evident truth that is the key to any sustainable democracy — the individual is sovereign and primary, while the state is servant and secondary.
What we face worldwide in the aftermath of 9/11 isn’t a conflict between different models of government; it’s a conflict between the civilized world — which respects the rights of men and women and includes people of all countries and all faiths, including Islam — and the irreconcilable wing of Islam, which is so totally at odds with the civilized world’s views of the rights of the individual that there is no way to reconcile the two world views. Conflict is unavoidable. Certainly, the promotion of democracy is a strategy that should be employed, but it has to include property rights, equality for women and people of other faiths, and the other bulwarks of successful democracies that protect the individual from the power of the state.
Q: Although I consider myself a loyal Democrat, I am drawn to the message espoused by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg: competence ought to trump ideology. Like many of my colleagues, friends, and family, I do not mind paying higher taxes in the abstract, as long as I can be assured that my tax dollars are being spent wisely by a Congress and a president devoted to competent government. We feel very much betrayed by what we have seen over the last 8 years.
What, if anything, can Washington do to assure Americans that politicians are dedicated to a competent, efficient government?
A: The reason the subtitle to Real Change is From the World that Fails to the World that Works is that I wanted to emphasize to voters that limited and effective government is possible, and we need to demand it. I think Washington (and, by extension, the state capitals and other centers of local government) need to adopt systems from the private sector that work, and that Americans are familiar with, and apply them to government. In Real Change, I cite New York City’s dramatic turnaround in fighting crime as an example of government that works. They did this through the application of modern information technology and relentless accountability. I also cite incentive-based contracts for transportation infrastructure as examples of smart government spending that uses free-market principles to deliver better results at lower cost.
Q: In what ways are Americans united on immigration, taxes, defending America, and freedom of religion? There is a deep split between those who feel like their wages are being suppressed by the presence of illegal immigrants and those who believe that the influx is necessary to maintain economic growth. Everyone will say that they want to pay fewer taxes, but when you tell them what they will lose if taxes are lowered, the population is decidedly split. The vague idea of “defending America” is split as well, with some wanting to take an offensive approach to defense and others desiring more domestic measures.
Please explain what the “unity” is in these areas, and how it translates into actual policy.
A: I’ll give you some examples from a series of polls American Solutions conducted in 2007. First, in the three issues you mentioned.
87 percent of the American people think English should be the official language of government;
63 percent of Americans want to increase the number of H-1B and H-2B visas so that more highly educated immigrants and those with special technical skills can work here;
83 percent of Americans favor requiring the IRS to conduct audits of companies that hire illegal immigrants to determine if they have paid the taxes they owed;
83 percent of Americans would support a worker visa program to make it easier for people in the U.S. to work legally.
However, by a 69 to 27 percent margin, Americans want people who have entered illegally to apply for their visas from their home countries, and not from within the U.S..
- 71 percent of Americans support an optional flat tax in which taxpayers would have a choice between the current tax code or a single 17 percent rate of taxation, with standard exemptions for each adult, married couple, and child dependent;
65 percent support abolishing the death tax;
70 percent favor a tax incentive for companies headquartered in the U.S;
74 percent favor a single rate of 17 percent for corporations.
- 85 percent believe it is very important for a group or organization in this country to pursue the goal of helping defend America and its allies;
75 percent believe it is very important for a group or organization in this country to pursue the goal of defeating America’s enemies;
85 percent believe Iran poses a serious threat;
79 percent would support the death penalty for someone caught and convicted of carrying out a terrorist attack in the U.S.;
83 percent support the establishment of clear laws making it a crime to advocate acts of terrorism or violent conduct or the killing of innocent people in the U.S.;
77 percent support the closing down of terrorist Web sites at home and abroad using the techniques of computer warfare.
Some other examples:
- 73 percent support drilling for oil off American’s coasts to reduce our dependence on foreign oil;
65 percent support building more nuclear power plants to cut carbon emissions and reduce our dependency on foreign oil;
88 percent approve of the reference to “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance;
94 percent approve of a moment of silence allowing children to pray to themselves if they want to in public schools.
More examples can be found in Real Change, and the full polling data, with crosstabs, can be found at Americansolutions.com (click on “research”).
Q: You discuss a united American front in your book. What healthcare platforms do you think Americans will unite around?
Also, why isn’t the free market working more efficiently in the healthcare industry? What solutions would you have for healthcare reform?
A: I don’t think our current health care system can be described as “free market.” In fact, I don’t even think you can describe it as a “system.” It’s simply a mess.
The current third party payment system for health care is inefficient, ineffective, fraudulent, and undermines personal responsibility. It is a classic example of why the buyer-seller model is so much more desirable than the buyer-seller-receiver bureaucratic model, whether public or private.
In the buyer-seller market, the buyer checks out the good or service and decides whether it is worth purchasing at the given price. The seller looks at the offered price, compares it with other offers, and either sells or rejects the offer. In a direct buyer-seller transition, there is minimum opportunity for fraud and maximum opportunity for satisfaction.
In a buyer-seller-receiver model, the buyer gets nothing of direct value, so he seeks to pay less and to micromanage the seller. The seller knows that the buyer suspects him of fraud or greed or incompetence. And the receiver of the seemingly free good or service has no gratitude because he isn’t paying for it. He is never satisfied because he believes the good or service is his right. He always wants more of it, with more convenience and with less accountability and responsibility.
I founded the Center for Health Transformation in 2003 to develop a 21st century, personalized, intelligent health system that will deliver better outcomes and lower costs for all Americans. This system will have three characteristics, none of which are present in today’s system:
1. It will be centered on the individual. This means Americans must have the right to know the cost and quality of the health services, products, or providers they are considering. In addition to these rights, patients must also have responsibilities. Individuals must be expected to inform themselves to make wise decisions and live healthier lifestyles including regular preventative checkups. Systems must be designed to emphasize these rights and responsibilities.
2. It will make use of information technology. Paper kills. It’s just that simple. With as many as 98,000 Americans dying as a result of medical errors in hospitals every year, ridding the system of paper-based records and quickly adopting health information technology would save lives and save money. We must also move toward e-prescribing to drastically reduce prescription errors.
3. It will focus on health, not healthcare. We must move from focusing on acute care to focusing on prevention and early detection. Our current system, by providing reimbursement for volume of care rather than outcomes, discourages the type of care that prevents disease and complications from chronic illnesses.
To learn more, I recommend the healthcare chapter in Real Change, co-written with Nancy Desmond, president of the Center for Health Transformation, and the Center’s Web site, Healthtransformation.net.
Q: You once said that America is in World War III. This implies that the Islamic threats of today are greater than the threats America faced in the Cold War. Do you still believe that America is in World War III?
A: I still concur with the spirit of what I said in September of 2006, but have since then agreed with Norman Podhoretz, who argued in his book World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism that since our conflict against the irreconcilable wing of Islam will employ the “hot” and “cold” attributes of World War I, World War II, and the Cold War (what he calls “World War III”), it is more useful to think of our current conflict as “World War IV.”
My larger point still stands. We have not yet come to terms with the generational nature of this conflict and the scale of effort that will be required to win it. I do believe that the chance of a weapon of mass destruction going off in an American city is greater today than at any time in human history; so in that sense, yes, I do believe the threat to our personal security is greater now than during the Cold War.
Q: Given the “hot topics” of the 2006 and 2008 election cycles, what would a “Contract for America” look like this year?
A: At American Solutions, we’ve created the Platform of American People, which is a collection of “tri-partisan” issues (they have the support of a majority of Democrats, Republicans, and independents) that we believe could rally the country around a common purpose. We are working to get these items included in the state party platforms of the Democratic and Republican parties. You can sign the petition here.
Q: Given the failure of the Soviet Union, the success of Chinese capitalism, and the stark difference between North and South Korea, why is it that American voters are forced to choose between two presidential candidates, either of whom would move us away from free markets?
A: I don’t think there is any comparison between Senator McCain and Senators Obama or Clinton when it comes to the utilization of free-market principles. Just look at the rhetoric coming from the Democratic candidates about free trade, as an obvious example. Or compare the healthcare proposals from McCain to either Obama’s or Clinton’s.
Q: I know you like to review books on Amazon. What are your top five all-time favorite books, both fiction and non-fiction?
A: Here are some books I strongly recommend.
- The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker – I have read this book once a year for the past 30 years and still learn something new with each reading. It is single best guide to being effective I have every come across.
The Godfather by Mario Puzo
Shogun by James Clavell
Advice and Consent: A Novel of Washington Politics by Alan Drury
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren
The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler
Lincoln by Gore Vidal, Lincoln at Cooper Union by Harold Holzer, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and The Eloquent President by Ronald White
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn
Leadership by Rudolph Giuliani, The Turnaround by William Bratton and Peter Knobler, and Moneyball by Michael Lewis — these three books explain metrics-based management, a key to 21st century government, which I write about in Real Change.
Q: What advice would you have for a young conservative right out of college who wants to make a positive change in America? Where would one even start?
A: There are so many ways we can make a positive difference in our communities. It’s one of the beauties of America. My main piece of advice is to find something you enjoy doing because, to get good at it, you’re going to have to do it a lot, and if you don’t enjoy it, you’re not going to do it enough to get good.
Q: Would a smaller government entail ending subsidies for Lockheed Martin?
A: I’m not sure what you’re referring to specifically, but in the abstract, yes. This doesn’t mean we should halt the development of new weapons systems or stop employing the power of the free market to ensure our military is the strongest and most modern in the world. But the process by which government contracts are awarded must be fair, open, and governed by rigorous Congressional oversight.
Q: To what extent, if any, do you believe that social conservatives and the so-called religious right have become a liability for the Republican Party?
A: I don’t believe social conservatives are a liability for the Republican Party. I also don’t believe that social conservatives exert any more influence on the Republican Party today than in the recent past. However, I would argue that the failure of the Republican Party in recent years to hold on to reform/good-government voters by maintaining a balanced budget, cutting spending and earmarks, tackling entitlement reform, and transforming big government into intelligent, effective, and limited government has allowed it to be defined more and more narrowly by fewer of its several constituencies. So the true liability for the Republican Party has been politicians unwilling to do the hard work of continuing the reform agenda of the Contract of America.
Q: Since lobbyists end up proposing much of the legislation, how can we get good ideas and reforms proposed? Should there be a national suggestion box for the government? Should we have a Web site where good ideas are proposed and rated, like YouTube videos?
A: At American Solutions, we have developed the Solutions Lab. It uses a wide variety of collaborative editing tools for citizens to submit ideas, have them reviewed by the community, and develop them into workable policy proposals. Our first iteration of the Solutions Lab is now active at Americansolutions.com, and an update and redesign is on its way based on the feedback we’ve received thus far. Our hope is that this platform will eventually become the “go to” destination for citizens to collaborate on solutions, and then collaborate to get them adopted by government.
Q: As I understand it, you have joined most citizens and Democrats in calling for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet a substantial portion of the Republican Party believes that global warming is, in the words of Rush Limbaugh, a “hoax.” Pollsters estimate that this group numbers 20 percent or more of the party. How do you propose to handle this resistance to sensible action to reduce the risks of global climate disruption?
A: I believe it is important for Americans of all political persuasions to focus on our shared concern with protecting the environment.
Polling conducted by American Solutions shows that:
- 95 percent of Americans believe we have to be good stewards of God’s creation for future generations;
78 percent believe our current dependence on foreign oil threatens our national security and economic prosperity by making us vulnerable to dangerous dictatorships;
79 percent believe we will solve our problems faster and more cheaply with innovation and new technology than with more litigation and more government regulation;
72 percent believe entrepreneurs are more likely to solve America’s energy problems than bureaucrats;
68 percent agree we don’t need to raise taxes to clean up our environment;
66 percent agree that poor countries tend to be the most polluted. Therefore, we need a strong economy to have a clean environment.
You can find more of this polling here.
In this data, we can see broad consensus about the importance of protecting the environment, developing local and clean energy alternatives, and consensus on the kind of solutions necessary to meet our challenges.
I think conservatives have fallen into a trap when it comes to the environment. For the last thirty years, the left has used the environment as an emotional tool to try and impose higher taxes, more litigation, and bigger government on the country. So the reaction from conservatives was simply to say “no.” But where was the free-market alternative? The lack of competing solutions branded conservatives as being against the environment.
I wrote A Contract with the Earth with Terry Maple to begin the development of a “green conservatism” that emphasizes free-market, entrepreneurial solutions to conserving the environment. If we can re-center our national dialogue about the environment toward shared values and competing solutions, the entire issue of anthropomorphic climate change will just become a sidebar to the larger conversation.
Q: How do politicians like yourself deal with the media? As previous comments reveal, anything that can be spun will be spun. Do you restrict your life to a bubble? Honestly, everything you say and do can and potentially will ruin your career. I can’t imagine the pressure of living my life in that sort of way.
A: A long time ago, Donald Rumsfeld offered some useful advice. “If something can’t be changed,” he told me, “it is a fact, not a problem. It’s what you do about it that is a problem.” I can’t think of anything to which this advice can better be applied than the relations between the media and politicians, and especially conservative politicians.
A politician’s relationship with the news media is complicated, because it is a bit of a symbiotic relationship. In today’s media environment, you need earned media to succeed. Conversely, the news media needs politicians to write about. I succeeded early in my career by being very good at getting earned media – that’s the only way a middle-class college professor with limited resources could have been elected to Congress.
However, I made a number of mistakes when I was speaker, and still do from time to time. You just have to constantly fight your impulse to think talking to the press is the same as talking to a friend or colleague, or, for me, being a professor in a lecture hall. It means learning when to keep quiet and how to talk around the media to the American people.
Q: What was the reasoning behind the decision to eliminate the Office of Technology Assessment?
A: Congress needs first-rate scientists talking to its members. It does not need congressional staff analysts talking to congressional staff members to develop staff-driven documents that are then presented to congressmen. That’s part of why those of us who didn’t like O.T.A., which included people who were very pro-science, felt that it was the wrong model. It produced an amazing amount of bureaucratic science that was a good half-step to a step behind the cutting edge of science.
In my experience as a member of Congress, I found that if you were willing to call the scientists, it was amazing how many would come talk to you, and it was amazing the quality of information you’d receive. O.T.A. should be replaced by a systematic relationship between Congress and the National Academy of Sciences, so that actual scientists are providing information to Congressmen.
Q: Do you feel that the “Learn and Earn” initiative reflects human nature’s capacity to perform and overcome adversity when incentives are presented, or does the initiative reflect the hunger for money in today’s society? Why aren’t getting good grades and doing well in school simply enough to be the reward? What do you think we can do to make achievement in schools the reward?
A: It would be wonderful if all students were driven by intrinsic motivation to achieve at their highest level possible. However, this is simply not happening.
The Learning Makes a Difference Foundation‘s “Learn and Earn” program pilot program provides students who are underperforming in math and science an external motivation of 8 dollars per hour for 4 hours a week to participate in an afterschool tutorial session and an additional incentive at the end of the program based on achievement of a B or better.
Interestingly enough, the pilot program’s teachers have indicated that this initial extrinsic motivation for students to attend and participate in the tutoring sessions has provided the students with the support to improve their performance, understand the material, and engage in the learning process. Real success for this program is not simply improving scores, but creating the understanding in the students that they can improve their performance through hard work and a transition to intrinsic motivation.
Q: I am interested to know how the “Learn and Earn” initiative is proceeding, and how (or whether) you see it being replicated or broadened to a national scale.
A: The “Learn and Earn” trial is underway, and is currently at the halfway mark. The teachers have seen the students become more confident in their learning and excited about engaging in the material.
My daughter Jackie Cushman, president of the Learning Makes a Difference Foundation, was recently on site at the schools and relayed to me a conversation she had with one of the students. He told her that he “was failing,” with the emphasis on “was.” The clear implication — he had a big smile on his face — was that he was no longer failing. As the tutoring session began, Jackie could see that he was one of the most involved students, asking questions and walking to the board to work through math problems. A student who was failing in math was now clearly engaged in learning. That is real change and real success.
Statistical analysis of scores and focus group results will be conducted at the end of the program, and the Learning Makes a Difference Foundation will determine the best way to expand this program at that time. For more information, please go here.
Q: William F. Buckley Jr. had many good friends who were liberals. Do you? Would you and Buckley have called each other friends?
A: Bill Buckley was a good friend, and I certainly would have called him a friend. I have many friends who vote as liberal Democrats, including a number of scientists. In politics, former Senator Bob Kerrey and I do a lot of projects together. Harold Ford Jr. is a good friend. There are a number of others.
Q: Do you believe that the speaker of House and the Senate majority leader should act in the interest of a) those who voted for them in their district/state; b) all the citizens of their district/state; c) all the people of their state; d) all those who voted for their party; e) all the citizens in the country; f) all the people in the country; g) their party; h) their campaign donors; or i) specific interest groups? Are the speaker and majority leader generally successful at balancing these interests?
A: The speaker of the House is mentioned in the Constitution, and is therefore a representative of the national interest. Within that context, he or she also has to represent his or her district and party. The Senate majority leader should represent the nation, his or her state, and his or her party, in that order. Some are very successful at mixing all their obligations, and some only moderately so.
Q: What TV shows do you watch?
A: Old movies.
Q: What is your favorite guilty snack?
A: A Slim-a-Bear ice cream.
Q: What is your alcoholic drink of choice?
Q: When you were a kid, what team did you root for, and who was your favorite athlete?
A: The Green Bay Packers, coach Vince Lombardi, and quarterback Bart Starr.
Q: Today, what sport do you watch, and which team/player do you root for?
A: The Green Bay Packers, and Brett Favre — I am in despair over his retirement
Q: Who gave you the name “Newt”?
A: My mother — I am named for my father and grandfather.