This intramural disagreement raises basic questions for Republicans about what kind of party they actually want to be in the 21st century. Is the Republican future going to continue to rely on country-club denizens and the rural bloc, or should it aim more for working-class Catholics or recent immigrants? Can a party trying to expand its coalition afford to make fundamentalist religious values a core tenet of its ideology? Or to assault the very idea of government? In many ways, as the most-blogged-about politician since the election, Sarah Palin has become a kaleidoscope through which to view these questions. For many Republicans, the Alaska governor and hockey mom is the new and galvanizing face of conservative America; to others, Palin personifies everything that’s wrong with the party, an approach short on intellect and long on cultural resentment.
Gingrich seems to have decided not to choose sides in this debate. On one hand, he holds himself up as the heir to the more progressive, reformist tradition in of his party, an intellectual provocateur in the model of early progressives like Teddy Roosevelt, Robert La Follette and Hiram Johnson. Twice during our conversations, Gingrich referred me to the chapter in Theodore White’s “Making of the President, 1960” in which White describes how Roosevelt led the progressives out of the Republican Party, leaving behind a more reactionary, isolationist wing that would dominate the party for most of the next 50 years. To Gingrich, this is the same tension that exists today, and he describes it as a continuing struggle between ideas and ignorance, between one group that always wants to modernize the party and another that’s nostalgic for the past.
And yet, at the same time, Gingrich pointedly declines to do what Roosevelt and La Follette did, which is to directly confront the Republican orthodoxies of their day.