RICHMOND, Va. (April 22, 2018) — Two bastions of American conservative politics came to Richmond on Saturday night to talk about the past and future of the Grand Ole Party before an audience of 4,500, representing political affiliations of all stripes. Moderator Mara Liasson was joined on The Richmond Forum stage by former U.S. Representative Joe Scarborough and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich for a rare live conversation entitled “Perspectives on the Party in Power.”
Since their time as colleagues during the “Contract with America”-era of 1990s House Republican politics, Scarborough and Gingrich have each remained leading voices in U.S. politics, though their paths have diverged. Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s popular Morning Joe, left the Republican Party last summer to become an Independent. Speaker Gingrich is a founder of policy think tanks, frequent political commentator on FOX News, and an early and staunch supporter of President Trump.
The GOP has long been the party of ideology, Mara Liasson explained in her introduction of the evening, which is what has made covering the Republican Party so compelling throughout her career as a political analyst for NPR and FOX. But these days she has trouble finding in the Party the same values of smaller government, fiscal responsibility, and the prominence of law and order that were the hallmarks of 1990s Republicanism.
Scarborough agreed with Liasson’s assessment of the GOP’s shifting values. “Right now, unfortunately, at least in the House and much of the Senate, they stand for what Donald Trump tells them to stand for, which is really, really depressing, because Republicans have been ideological and have been the party of ideas.”
Gingrich added that the circumstances surrounding those core issues have changed over the past 25 years, and many Republicans’ stances—including his—have adjusted accordingly. For one example, he has a different position on trade relations with China, since that country is now an economic rival of the United States and presents challenges in tariffs and intellectual property disputes that in the early ’90s were unimaginable.
The times have indeed brought many changes for conservatives, including the rise of a populist president, Donald Trump. Liasson asked the former Speaker if President Trump is laying the groundwork for a successful GOP. Gingrich cited low unemployment rates for African Americans and Latinos, improvements in outlook for small businesses, and an overall growth in the economy. “People look around and go, ‘This works!'”
Then why, Liasson countered, isn’t the president’s approval rating tracking with the economy, instead staying stable at around 40%? Gingrich blamed the media, who he said does not give enough positive attention to conservative accomplishments.
“I think to be a genuine conservative is to guarantee such hostility in the media that you have to assume most of the time you’re going to get battered and beaten up and attacked. And, given a choice between ‘We’re now talking with North Korea and we might have a historic breakthrough’ or ‘Let’s talk about Stormy Daniels,’ which one would you guess CNN will spend all evening on?”
Looking forward to the 2018 mid-term elections and beyond, Scarborough and Gingrich didn’t see eye to eye.
Scarborough foresees the Democrats having a strong chance at flipping the House of Representatives blue, but having a tougher time in the Senate. In ten years, he envisions a third party causing disruption of the “160-year duopoly” of the Republican-Democrat U.S. political system.
Gingrich, on the other hand, was more optimistic about the strength of the Republican Party. He believes that if the Republicans stick with a campaign of promoting the “good economic growth” that has accompanied the first year and half of the Trump Administration, then voters will respond to that and keep the party in power.
“My hope is that ten years out we’ll be much more the party of people like Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley, and Tim Scott. If you look at state legislatures, it’s already happening,” Gingrich said.
After a sometimes heated back-and-forth during the first half of the program, the trio returned to the stage after an intermission to respond to audience questions ranging from the dysfunctional nature of today’s Congress to political discourse to the apparent disappearance of fiscal conservatism in the GOP.
Here, the former Congressmen largely agreed. They praised the checks and balances of the Constitution—inefficient though the document may be—that prevent would-be dictators from usurping power, and reflected on the days in the House when members of the opposing parties would “attack each other in the morning, negotiate in the afternoon, and have a drink in the evening.” That sort of rapport is largely absent on Capitol Hill today.
“Newt and I agree 80-90% of the time, but when we disagree we have very heated disagreements,” Scarborough elaborated. “But we never take it personally.”
The pair stressed the importance of bringing ideologies and ideas to the table, since those ingredients are the basis of compromise in legislation. “If you don’t have an ideology,” Speaker Gingrich asked incredulously to a submitted question, “What are you compromising? You ought to know who you are, what you believe, and what you’re trying to accomplish. And then you’ve got to find a way to get it done.”
Joe Scarborough and Newt Gingrich have differing visions for the party they have each called their own, but they have the same hope for success for the country. The ability to put aside differences and come together to address difficult topics is critical for this endeavor, and The Richmond Forum once again provided a venue and opportunity for meaningful discourse.
The Richmond Forum is America’s largest non-profit public forum, producing five programs each year in Richmond, Virginia.
Written by Thomas Breeden for The Richmond Forum
April 22, 2018