AUSTIN -- As the first Republican Speaker of the U.S. House in 40 years, Newt Gingrich led a Republican House under Democratic President Bill Clinton.
Despite heated disagreement which led to a temporary government shutdown, the president and legislature nevertheless managed to cut taxes, pass sweeping welfare reform and the first balanced budget in nearly three decades.
Scheduled to speak to students Thursday at the University of Texas' Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs, the legislator-turned conservative pundit sat down with KVUE to discuss the state of political discourse then and now.
"I worked with President Reagan at a time when the Democrats controlled the house," said Gingrich. "We had to get one out of every three Democrats to vote with us in order to get the Reagan tax program through in order to grow the economy. I worked with President Bill Clinton. You had a Republican Speaker of the House who was a solid conservative. You had a moderate liberal Democrat in the White House. We had to look beyond our partisan and our ideological views to get anything done."
Redistricting efforts in states such as Texas have created voting districts virtually guaranteed to elect one party or the other, shifting the battle for office from the general election to the party primary. As a result, lawmakers may face the decision between achieving workable compromise or alienating hard-line partisans who vote in the primary elections. Asked which choice is more important, Gingrich argued it's not that simple.
"Leadership can bring people to accomplish things without an automatic, 'I've got to vote my base or I've got to vote my primary,' but I think it does take real work. There's no question the American system has always been the most complicated system in the world. It's probably why we've remained as free as we have. It's virtually impossible for a dictator to make it work."
The idea of compromise may seem nostalgic to many today. Hyper-partisan politics driven by the extremists in either party has approval for the current congress barely above single digits. Even as Texas Republicans during the primary season fought to out-flank opponents on the right, Gingrich dismisses the idea that moderate conservatives have outlived their usefulness.
"I don't know that I'd say it that way. First of all, you have a very wide range of people in the U.S. Senate and in the U.S. House, and I think we're clearly the conservative party just as the Democrats are clearly the liberal party," said Gingrich.
"I do think we have polarized more as a country over the last 30 years, but I think that's real," Gingrich said. "I don't think that's just the parties. I think the country, if you look at how the country's evolved, there are probably bigger gaps than there were 30 years ago."
Gingrich concedes that addressing the growing gap is a difficult enterprise.
"I think you have to have leadership that paints a vivid image of the future and that convinces people that there is something worth working for that is so important that it transcends our partisanship," said Gingrich. "I think Governor Romney understands this. He worked with an 85 percent Democratic legislature in Massachusetts. I think he has a plan to actually reach out to Democrats from day one, and I think that's a very important part of this."
With most recent polling showing the presidential race within the margin of error, buzz has begun over whether the 2012 election could result in a scenario similar to that of 2000 in which Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote and Republican George W. Bush won the electoral vote, handing Bush the victory in a split result.
"Well it technically could happen, but I think that it's very likely that one or the other will actually win both the popular vote and the electoral vote," said Gingrich. "I think the momentum seems to be with Romney, and if you look at the track of the last three weeks or four weeks, I would say right now he's moving towards a decisive victory and one which could well put him above 300 electoral votes."
Aside from jobs and the economy, Gingrich said President Obama or President Romney will face a host of immediate and significant challenges to begin 2013.
"I think they're going to face a huge problem in Europe with the collapse of the Euro Zone," said Gingrich. "They're going to face a continuing problem in the Middle East with the radicalization of Islamists in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan. These are big challenges. They're going to face the continued rise of China. Frankly they're going to face a pure fiscal crisis in the first 90 days that they're going to have to find some way to muddle through and probably buy time to spend a year or more solving."
As a contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, Gingrich shared the debate stage with Texas Governor Rick Perry. Each saw his own presidential fortunes rise and fall before leaving the race and Perry's political aspirations beyond Texas have continued to be a subject of speculation despite his conspicuous exit.
"I think if Governor Romney wins, obviously he's going to run for reelection in 2016, and at that point I suspect Governor Perry will be supporting him," said Gingrich. "On the other hand Rick Perry is one of the most talented and competent people I know. I think that he has great potential, and I think if there is an opening that he would certainly be one of the people on the short list of who could run."
A lightning rod in the political world, Gingrich has earned his share of controversy. As speaker, many criticized Gingrich for implying he was willing to shut down the federal government over a personal slight by then President Clinton.
Gingrich took heat from Republicans before resigning from the position as speaker, and has continued to irk many within his own party by refusing to toe the line on issues such as climate change. More recently, a promise during his 2012 presidential campaign turned heads nationwide.
"We will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American," Gingrich told a crowd of supporters in Florida while running for the GOP nomination in January of 2012. It was a goal he promised to accomplish within two presidential terms, or eight years.
"I think if we restructured NASA, move to a prize-oriented, incentivized private sector approach, we could get back to the moon for about ten percent of what NASA thinks it would cost and we could do it probably within seven to ten years," Gingrich said Thursday.
Like millions of Americans, Gingrich said he watched skydiver Felix Baumgartner's 128,000 foot jump from the "edge of space" as part of the Red Bull Stratos project. Asked whether he envisions the future of spaceflight to consist of similar commercial endeavors, Gingrich embraced the idea.
"Take a look at your Android or your iPhone and then look at the post office," said Gingrich. "It just strikes me you want the kind of innovation and daring and risk-taking you see with Google and Apple, not the kind of bureaucracy you see in the government."
A government where compromise, like the moon, for now seems just out of reach.