The former GOP presidential candidate explains his rationale for encouraging his delegates to support the Republican nominee and shares how his party can broaden its appeal to voters.
Former GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich
Tavis: Feels like déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once said. Four years ago when we kicked off our coverage of the Republican National Committee our guest, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and a hurricane was playing havoc with the convention schedule back then, just as it is this year in Tampa.
Regardless, I’m always pleased to welcome the former Speaker to this program. Speaker Gingrich, good to have you back, sir.
Newt Gingrich: Oh, Tavis, it’s great to be back with you. There is kind of an eerie parallel there, isn’t there?
Tavis: There is indeed, but I was glad to have you then and glad to have you tonight. Let me start with the fact that you have now released your delegates and have encouraged them strongly to support Romney-Ryan. What’s your rationale, having run against Mr. Romney, for now encouraging your delegates to vote for him?
Gingrich: Well, clearly, he’s going to become the nominee, and we want to be a unified party. In addition, when I look at the future for my country, for my children, my grandchildren, I think the requirement to defeat Barack Obama is so great that it’s pretty easy for any conservative to decide that Romney is the only alternative we have.
So that’s a key part of what we’re doing, and I think that it’s very important to recognize that and to have some feeling among all conservatives that we have to come together as we enter Labor Day, and we have to present a united front.
Tavis: You raised President Obama’s name already. You and I have been friends for years and we haven’t always agreed on everything, but I’ve always had a fair audience with you and I’ve always tried to offer the same to you.
So let me just give you a chance now to explain to me what you meant when you referred to Barack Obama as “the food stamp president,” because a lot of folk saw race in that, and quite frankly I didn’t like it when you said it. Maybe I misread it, but what did you mean by that, and do you regret having said that?
Gingrich: Well, I don’t regret it. What I meant was specifically that more Americans today are on food stamps than any time in American history, and that if you look at the recent changes in the welfare law, which the president did by himself and which I think are probably illegal, they create a loophole to avoid the work requirement, and it’s part of the same pattern.
My point was this is the weakest recovery since the Great Depression. If you look, we have a chart that shows every single recovery since World War II. This one is by far totally off the chart in terms of every other recovery. So you have a president whose policies are not creating jobs, but they are dramatically increasing the number of people who are dependent on the government.
I think that’s a bad thing. I was using the term – remember, more whites than Blacks are on food stamps. It is not a racial issue in that sense. The question is do you want a president who focuses on getting people back to work, or a president who focuses on having people become dependent? I think that’s a very fundamental difference in approaches.
Tavis: Okay. Fifteen years ago, when you were the Speaker and Bill Clinton was the president, you all together, at least came together on this particular issue, that so-called “Welfare to Work” program. Bill Clinton was basically taking a page out of the Republican, out of your playbook at the time.
“The New York Times,” as you know, a few weeks ago did a front page in-depth story about the fact that Peter Edelman and others were right back then, and I was one of the persons on the Edelman side, even though Clinton is a friend of mine as well.
I was saying then that I didn’t agree with this Welfare to Work program, because if you take away the social safety net, if the economy tanks at some point, there’s nothing to fall back on. So “The New York Times” now says that 15 years later, Peter Edelman basically was right – that the Welfare to Work program that you and Clinton both supported did not work, and that that is the primary reason why more women and children are falling into poverty now than any other group of Americans.
Gingrich: Well, see, I just disagree with that. First of all, all the evidence that we have was that the Welfare to Work was working. The number of children in poverty was reduced by 25 percent. The income of families went up as they went to school and they went to work.
The problem is today you have such a huge economic problem, you have so many million Americans who are unemployed, so many million Americans who’ve dropped out of the workforce.
Gingrich: But the true unemployment number’s probably closer to 14 or 15 percent if you count people who would have been in the workforce in 2000, but who were just discouraged and just quit looking. So this is an enormous problem. It’s not quite yet European level, but it’s drifting towards a European kind of problem. We just have too many people out of work.
The question is what’s the best way to get them back to work, and what’s the best way to encourage the economy to develop?
Tavis: All I was saying was, though, that there’s no social safety net now. You’re right about all the numbers you’ve just laid out, we agree on that. But what do people do when through no fault of their own, you got corporate greed, you got political indifference, you got jobs being shipped abroad. Americans didn’t ask to be unemployed, they didn’t ask to be underemployed, they didn’t ask to be part of a housing bubble.
They’re catching hell through no fault of their own and there is no social safety net, so women and children are just – they’re just out there now.
Gingrich: Well, there are a couple of things that make people uncomfortable, but I want to raise them. First of all, we ought to change unemployment compensation so that if you sign up for unemployment compensation you have to go into a work-training program so you’re increasing your skill level.
You go to a place like North Dakota, which has a huge boom in oil, and they have 3 percent unemployment, but that number is misleading because they have 17,000 jobs they can’t fill.
You go to Fresno, south California, there are 7,000 people out of work and there are 7,000 job vacancies, but the 7,000 people out of work don’t have the right skills for the job vacancies. So the first thing you do is you realize we’ve got to train America back into jobs and make us fully competitive in the world market.
The second difference, I think, and the second place where I would really approach this very differently from the Obama model is you dramatically favor small business. Small businesses hire people, small businesses, frankly, for ethnic minorities, is where they start.
You get your future – Steve Jobs and Bill Gates – not from people going in at some big corporation, but from going out and founding a business. Once upon a time, Microsoft was a baby business, Apple was a baby business. You want to encourage more people there.
This administration has actually discouraged creating small business, make it more risky, more expensive, and has gone in exactly the opposite direction.
Tavis: Here again, we agree. I don’t think this administration has done nearly enough as they should have done, as it were, with regard to small business. They have favored big business, many of them gathered now in Tampa for this convention, but they’ve too often favored big business (laughter), not looked out for small business. We agree on that.
Let me go back to your first part, though, which I see a little bit differently. If you said to the American middle class or the former middle class, which now make up ranks of the poor, that the reason why they’re unemployment is because they don’t have a good skill set, I think a lot of folk would be offended by that.
There are a lot of Americans who did not get laid off, they didn’t get downsized, they didn’t get pink-slipped because their skill set was deficient. It’s because of a lot of greed and because of a lot of other things, but it’s not because their skill set just all of a sudden didn’t measure up.
Gingrich: Sure, but look, you’ve got to approach life every morning either as a victim or as an opportunity. That’s a big psychological difference, I think, in liberalism and conservatism.
I had relatives who came through the Great Depression, a time that was much worse than today, and they picked themselves up every morning and they went and found something to do. They stayed busy, they stayed active, they learned, and the moved ahead in life.
Now, you pointed to one thing that is absolutely beyond the control of average people, and that is the housing bubble. There’s no question that in Florida, Nevada, Arizona, Southern California you had a genuine bubble where people thought they would be able to increase the value of their house overnight, and there the question is what’s the fastest way to turn it around.
Now, I agree with Governor Romney’s critique that the Dodd-Frank bill was profoundly wrong. It actually makes the big banks bigger, which is the wrong direction to go in. We ought to be encouraging local community banks, we ought to be encouraging credit unions, we ought to be encouraging situations where local people put their money together to form local banks in order to prop up the local economy.
You’re not going to get these eight or 10 giant, worldwide banks to pay much attention to small-town America, but you could, in fact, find enough capital in small banks to really have this country launch a new generation of economic opportunity.
Tavis: You raised the issue of poverty a moment ago, and in just a few moments I want to come back and have a specific conversation about poverty. As you and I both know sitting here tonight, we’re just days away from the U.S. Census Bureau releasing the official government numbers about poverty.
We expect those numbers in early September, after both these conventions conclude.
So we’ll talk about poverty in America and how threatening it is to our very democracy in just a moment. But let me go to Mr. Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan. Mr. Ryan is a Catholic. You, of course, are now a Catholic, along with your wife, Callista.
When Mr. Ryan put out his budget, Catholic bishops came out nationally and said that it wasn’t in keeping with the teaching that Mr. Ryan had been raised on. These are Catholic bishops now who have a probably with his budget in part because of what it did to the poor, that it lacked compassion.
So that now Mr. Romney has picked Mr. Ryan as his running mate, what say you about if not the Ryan budget, at least the Romney-Ryan budget, which ain’t gonna be that dissimilar, I suspect.
Gingrich: Well, I suggest to people who are really interested in this topic, which is a fascinating one, that they get Ryan’s speech at Georgetown, a Catholic institution. Ryan went there and he outlined his understanding of Catholic social doctrine, and did a pretty good job of explaining how he thought the level of compassion he was creating was in fact totally appropriate.
The challenge you have is this. If you look at the Ryan in detail, he actually increases support for people in the lower 40 percent of the income level, and he actually caps support for people in the top 40 percent. So he’s actually trying to find a way, on Social Security reform, on Medicare reform, of increasing the support for people who are at the lowest part of the economy in terms of their incomes, and recognizing that you don’t want to leave people with incomes so low that they can’t have a decent life.
I think looking at his budget in more detail, people will find that it’s a very serious effort to apply Catholic social doctrine in an effort to help the poor while also respecting the reality. This is something which frankly Cardinal Dolan and others have commented on.
You do have this reality that we don’t have all the money we’d like to have, and that we are faced with a genuine fiscal crisis for the entire society, not just the government.
Tavis: How are they going to sell this Medicare plan? I’ve had conservatives say to me that they’re not sure this dog is going to hunt between now and Election Day. They may have picked the wrong issue, because it takes so much explaining, even if they were right, it takes so much explaining, it’s such a red herring, it’s such a lightning rod of an issue, why choose this issue, and can they sell their plan to the American people without scaring them between now and Election Day?
Gingrich: Well, I think part of what’s interesting about Governor Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan is that he decided if that debate’s unavoidable, isn’t it a lot better to have the guy who’s the leading expert in the country on the ticket so he’s the one who’s explaining it.
I think you’ll find that Ryan’s very, very attractive, very articulate, and has a great story to tell. His home district, which is a swing district – Obama carried it – he got 68 percent of the vote last time. So Ryan has a real capacity to communicate what he’s trying to accomplish.
The two things to remember, they’re very simple. If you’re over 55, nothing changes. So every Democratic Party ad, every Obama ad which tries to frighten senior citizens is just malarkey. The fact is that it’s the president who took $716 billion out of Medicare funding to put into Obamacare, and it is Romney and Ryan who in fact do not change Medicare for people over 55.
The second thing to remember is that the new Ryan-Wyden plan, Senator Wyden is a Democrat from Oregon, the only bipartisan plan that tries to reform Medicare, the new Wyden-Ryan plan allows you to keep traditional Medicare, if that’s where you want to be.
It establishes a voucher program, but it says look, you’d rather spend your money inside traditional Medicare, that’s fine. If you’d rather go buy other kinds of insurance, that’s fine. It’s actually modeled on the federal employee health benefit plan which members of Congress get.
So it creates choices for people under 55 and it relies on market competition to bring down cost and price, which, by the way, has happened in Medicare part D. Medicare part D, where they have real competition, has come in 43 percent cheaper than the government thought it would back in 2003, and that’s because market forces have driven down the cost in a way that no bureaucracy could have.
Tavis: People have a right to disagree with your ideas, but if I were asked to put my list of the top five political minds who would fare best in debates, you’d be in my top five because you know your material, you know it well. You know how to make your argument; you’re good at what you do.
I raise that because you’ve debated Romney as much as anybody during the presidential primary season. We know there are going to be three debates between Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama starting in October. So that since you mentioned Obamacare, when one of the moderators says to Mr. Romney, or when Mr. Obama, in answer to a question, looks at Governor Romney and says to him, “But Mitt, my plan is your plan. This Obamacare plan was modeled after your plan when you were the governor of Massachusetts, and now you want to denigrate the plan that we modeled ours on, which is yours.” What is Mr. Romney going to say?
Gingrich: Oh, I think he’ll have seven or eight points in a row that he’ll say almost in machine-gun fashion. I have to tell you, I debated Mitt 17 times. I think most people think I did as well as or better, most of them. But the two debates that really mattered in Florida where it was life-and-death for Romney and frankly life-and-death for Gingrich he did very well.
He was very well prepared. He was leaning forward, he was combative. I think it’ll be fascinating. I think the Ryan-Biden debate will be more fascinating because they’re so radically different in style, but I think the Obama-Romney debates are going to be very interesting. It’s going to be two tough guys who know a lot who go at each other very directly.
Tavis: The storyline – there are any number of storylines coming out of Tampa this week. As you well know, one of them is that Mr. Romney has got to find a way to connect with the American people. He’s his own guy and he has basically said that’s not who I am and I’m not going to pour my heart out.
I’m paraphrasing here, but you know the guy better than I do. So how, then, does he connect with the American people, because ultimately, even if people think you have good ideas but they don’t feel any empathy or connection to you, and all the polls seem to indicate that most Americans polled, at least, feel something for Mr. Obama where they don’t feel anything for Mr. Romney, how does he make that connection?
Gingrich: Well, I don’t think Mitt Romney’s going to beat Obama in a personality contest.
Gingrich: But I do think he can beat him in a performance contest. The way I put it’s simple. Imagine that you had a major leak in your house and water was dripping down the wall, and you had a choice of two plumbers, you knew both of them.
One was a terrific guy, you’d love to have a beer with him, but he happened to be not very competent and you knew that the water would still be running down your wall. The other guy’s a little stand-offish and not nearly as much fun, but he’s a really good plumber.
Now, I think Romney’s case is simple – he is a really good leader, a really good manager. He can turn this economy around. He can create American energy independence so no future president ever bows to a Saudi king. He’s smart enough to actually run the federal government effectively, and he will get to a balanced budget.
What people have to decide is would you rather have that really pleasant guy who isn’t performing very well, or would you like to gamble on somebody who’s pretty aggressive, pretty hard-hitting, pretty tough-minded and actually can get the job done?
I think when you look at this economy, we had a chart at Newt University today which you can get to at NewtUniversity.com, and the chart shows you every recession since World War II, and the Obama recession is so much worse than every other one. All the others look sort of similar.
They’ve fallen (unintelligible) they’re just all these little lines, and then way down here is this steady 8 percent unemployment of the Obama years. Nothing like it since World War II. People have to look at that and say, “All right, do I like him enough that I’ll take the deficits, the unemployment, the various things they don’t agree with,” or “Do I want to try this guy who’s candidly, a little more aloof, a little more disciplined. He’s a business manager.
Tavis: Two questions. One, the polls indicate very clearly that even if Mr. Romney is right about that, that is to say, his views about the economy, his message so far has not pulled him past Mr. Obama in these competitive battleground states.
So now we read that he’s going to have to get tougher, or come up with some new strategy which to my mind means the campaign’s going to get even nastier and even uglier and even more divisive, but that’s just my thinking on it.
But he obviously is going to have to do something beyond just talking about the economy, no matter how important it is. So I come back to all your charts and your graphs and everything at Newt University, so even if he lays that message out, clearly, again, it’s not enough at the moment. What’s that extra? What is that value add he’s going to have to come up with beyond talking about the economy, even if he’s right about his approach?
Gingrich: Well, look, I think there are actually three things that he will do, the first which political strategists know and are fascinated by. You had, in June and July, a hemorrhage of money from Obama. They poured money into these states, and they actually spent far more than Romney, they have much less cash on hand for the fall campaign.
They were gambling that they could hit him so hard that they would cripple him for the fall campaign. That hasn’t happened. As you just pointed out, they’re about neck-and-neck and they’re very competitive.
Tavis: Fair enough.
Gingrich: Second, I think he actually goes to a bigger contrast rather than a negative attack ad. We just got a survey back where we asked people would you rather have a bigger economy with more jobs and a smaller government with fewer services, or would you rather have a bigger government with more services and a smaller economy with fewer jobs?
By 70 to 16, the American people favor a bigger economy over a bigger government. I don’t think that’s sunk in yet. I think American energy independence is about an 80 percent issue. These are things that I think have not sunk in.
Lastly, I think presidents who are in trouble – Jimmy Carter was a good example; George H. W. Bush to some extent in 1992 is another example – presidents who get in trouble have a really – if they haven’t recovered by Labor Day, they don’t recover.
I think Obama’s challenge is – James Carville once taught me that incumbents get whatever the last poll was. They get none of the undecided. Well, the last couple of polls that I’ve seen for Obama are at the 45, 46, 47 level. If he is really stuck there in a period where he was outspending Romney and Romney is now able to outspend him, I think this could be a very exciting fall campaign.
Tavis: Since you mentioned the fall campaign, that sprint between Labor Day and Election Day, let me talk about these poverty numbers that we are expecting in just a matter of days from the Census Bureau. It’s my understanding that they’re going to wait until both conventions are over so there are no politics played here, and then they’ll put the numbers out.
These numbers, as you well know, are going to be very bad for the Obama administration. They’re going to point out that poverty is the worst it’s ever been; in some categories, not this bad since the Great Depression. But the top line, as I’m looking at what these numbers are going to reveal, will be that poverty is becoming, if not already has become, the new American norm.
I suspect Mr. Romney is going to take those poverty numbers and clobber the president with those numbers about poverty. Whether or not he can do a better job remains to be seen. But when these poverty numbers come out, what kind of debate do you expect about what these numbers actually mean for how much poverty has worsened in this country?
Gingrich: Well, I think you just put your finger on one of the key debate points. The Obama people are going to say, “Look, this is the new norm. We’re doing the best we can, but it’s really not our fault. It’s just a really difficult problem.” This is what Jimmy Carter did in 1980.
What Romney’s got to get across is real simple – that John F. Kennedy was right, that rising tides lift all boats. That the Romney goal of 4 percent or more growth every year – and under Reagan, remember, we got up to 6 or 7 percent a year during the recovery phase – that’s what lifts people back into opportunity.
One of the great challenges, I think, for many, many people, for example, in the African American community and in the parts of the Democratic Party that most care about the poor is if something is clearly not working, at what point do we have the courage to try something dramatically new and dramatically different?
I think we’ve got to really think about that very deeply. We, as you know, and you’ve covered it more than I have, Tavis, we have neighborhoods and communities that are just cut off from the American dream today.
That should be unacceptable to all of us, and I think it should require us to think about very bold new strategies, and you’ve heard me talk about Detroit and other places where I would really go for very dramatic changes in regulations, changes in the tax structure, really trying to make these cities attractive places to invest in again. I think we have to have some kind of very bold new approach.
Tavis: I’ve got a minute and a half to go here. Since you went there, mentioning the African American community, mentioning Detroit, basically talking about broadening the base, I moderated presidential debates, both Republican and Democrat, four years ago, as you’ll recall, and I want to say this publicly for the first time, to your credit, I did not do that this year but you called me early on in the campaign when you announced you were going to run and said to me, “Tavis, if you’re going to do those debates again this time around, focusing specifically on communities of color, I’m telling you right now that I’m confirmed – I will be there.”
So I thank you for calling me about that, had I moderated those debates. For many reasons, we didn’t do that this time around, although maybe we have. Here’s the question, very quickly. How, ultimately, does your party, though, never mind what you might think, how does your party broaden its base, broaden its appeal, because long-term – let me be frank – I see the GOP going down.
You guys are going under in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever. If you can’t broaden your appeal, it’s that simple – you’re done.
Gingrich: Well, let me start with former Congressman Artur Davis, a Democrat who helped second Obama’s nomination, who I just did Mike Huckabee’s show with today, and Congressman Davis, as you know, has switched parties, become a Republican, and will speak here as an African American who’s in favor of electing Mitt Romney.
Let me talk about Tim Scott, African American congressman from Charleston, South Carolina, who’s active. Congressman Alan West, African American from Florida, who’s active. In the Latino community, Senator Marco Rubio, you have Ted Cruz, who just won the Senate primary and will be the next senator from Texas, Susana Martinez, the governor of New Mexico.
You have in the Asian community people like Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina. I suspect this is the most diverse Republican Party in modern times, and it’s going to keep growing more and more diverse, and you’re going to find a constant continuing effort by us to reach out.
Governor Perry has done a great job in Texas and our penetration in Texas. The number of Latinos in Texas who are now running for office as Republicans is at an all-time high, and I give Rick Perry a lot of credit for his leadership there.
So I think you’re going to see us continue to reach out all across the country to find more and more people of color, people of different ethnic backgrounds, to come together and represent a Republican Party that I think could be extraordinarily exciting.
Tavis: Speaker Gingrich, as always, delighted to have you on this program. Thanks for sharing your insights tonight.
Gingrich: Thank you.
Tavis: Have a great convention week there in Tampa, and stay safe.
Gingrich: Take care. Thanks, Tavis.
Tavis: Good to see you. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
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