The phone call came from Al to Newt.
Al Gore, the Democratic Party presidential nominee in 2000, wanted to know whether Newt Gingrich, the former Republican U.S. House speaker, would appear in a 2008 television ad calling for action to address climate change.
Gingrich, who was promoting his latest book “Contract With the Earth” and urging “green conservatism,” agreed. In an e-mail obtained by Bloomberg News that he wrote to the former vice president, Gingrich thanked Gore “for the opportunity to participate in the Protect Climate ad campaign.” He signed the March 2008 note, “Your friend, Newt.”
Those exchanges led Gingrich, now a Republican presidential candidate, to a chilly, rainy commercial set in April 2008, sitting side-by-side, knee-to-knee on a love seat with then-Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with the cameras rolling. It’s an event he describes today as “the dumbest single thing I’ve done.”
Gingrich’s primary opponents already are pouncing on the ad as evidence that the former speaker’s record on such core conservative principles as opposing government regulations to curb global warming makes him unsuited for the nomination and less-equipped to defeat President Barack Obama.
Texas Representative Ron Paul released a Web video Nov. 30 that accused Gingrich of “serial hypocrisy,” which prominently featured an excerpt from the Gingrich-Pelosi climate ad.
While the climate-change ad is the highest-profile bipartisan event Gingrich engaged in between his 1999 retirement from Congress and his presidential campaign, it isn’t the only one. He’s also appeared with marquee Democrats, such as then-Senator Hillary Clinton, in gatherings highlighting health care, global warming and education.
The former speaker’s willingness to become the Republican headliner at such events helped keep him in the news and at the center of national debates as he was also building his post-political brand and a multi-million dollar consulting and publishing business.
Gingrich was warned by his aides at the time that participating in Gore’s “We Can Solve It” ad campaign could have dire political consequences.
“It was a political mistake,” Rick Tyler, a former Gingrich spokesman, said he told his boss at the time. Gingrich “wanted to do the ad and felt it was more important to be proactive on issues than it was to be reactive to political expediency.”
Gingrich did have reservations about pairing with Pelosi, who was viewed as a liberal icon by leaders of his party. In the e-mail about a month before the commercial was filmed, Gingrich told Gore that “appearing with Speaker Pelosi in the current political environment is simply too problematic,” and suggested approaching Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, as an alternative.
Meanwhile, Gingrich’s staff balked at what Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection wanted the former speaker to say in the ad. They refused to clear the words “crisis” to describe climate change or for him to say -- “We need new laws” -- to address it, according to one person familiar with the making of the commercial who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We rejected the initial script because it stated positions that we just didn’t believe were true,” said Tyler. “They wanted Newt to basically talk about global warming, which we would not do. At the time, ‘climate change’ was seen as a safe thing to say.”
Gingrich’s staff and Gore’s negotiated intensely over the commercial’s script, up until midnight the day of the shooting at the foot of the Capitol in April 2008. There, with temperatures in the 40’s and rain falling steadily as aides looked on sipping warm soup, Gingrich and Pelosi took their places on the love seat placed under a tarp and spoke their lines.
“We don’t always see eye-to-eye, do we Newt?” says a smiling Pelosi. “No,” says Gingrich, smiling back, “but we do agree we must take action to address climate change.”
Gore declined through a spokeswoman to comment for this story, as did a spokesman for his Climate Reality Project.
About a month after the commercial began airing, Gingrich’s now defunct political action group, American Solutions for Winning the Future, began its own advertising campaign -- a pro-oil “Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less,” mantra aimed at blocking legislation co-sponsored by Senators Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, and John Warner, a Virginia Republican, to combat climate change by curbing carbon emissions.
Today, most of Gingrich’s primary competitors deny climate change is happening or that humans have a role in it. Gingrich now says he’s “agnostic” on the issue.
As for his staff’s reasoning that “climate change” would be politically safe language, they missed the mark for a 2012 Republican presidential primary candidate.
A poll released Sept. 22 by the Public Religion Research Institute found that while almost 7 in 10 Americans overall say there is solid evidence that the Earth is warming and two-thirds believe it is due to human activity, less than half of Republicans and only 41 percent of those who identify with the Tea Party believe in climate change, and only 18 percent of both groups attribute it to human activity.
Defending His Role
“I was trying to do something I failed to do. I do think it’s important for conservatives to be in the middle of the debate over the environment,” Gingrich told Fox News Nov. 8, when he called his participation in the ad dumb.
Gingrich said in the interview he doesn’t “know whether global warming is occurring,” and had appeared in the ad only to advocate “finding innovative new ways to get cleaner energy.”
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, working to slow Gingrich’s momentum, is now turning those words against his primary rival.
In a Nov. 29 interview on Fox News, Romney suggested that while he’s willing to weather criticism for standing behind the Massachusetts health-care law he signed -- a liability with Republican base voters who liken its mandate for individual coverage to the one in a new national law -- the former House speaker has tried to dodge his own political albatross.
“If I were willing to say anything to get elected, wouldn’t I just say, ‘Oh, it was a mistake?,’ because I’ve watched other people on the stage,” Romney said. “When someone says, ‘Oh, I did this ad on global warming -- that was a mistake.’ So, they just dust it aside, and that makes them more attractive in a primary. I’m standing by what I did.”
R.C. Hammond, Gingrich’s spokesman, said yesterday the candidate has acknowledged that participating in the ad “was stupid,” and that it didn’t accomplish his objective.
“It turned out to be a bad way to engage with the opposition and, instead of ceding the issue completely to the liberal left, to engage, and say, ‘Hey, conservatives care about the environment too,’” Hammond said.
He said Gingrich has teamed with Democrats on such efforts in recent years because his “goal is to solve the problem. It’s to get across the finish line, and to do that you have to have a coalition.”
Gingrich’s opponents will have other bipartisan appearances to use as weapons.
In 2005, he appeared with then-Senator Hillary Clinton at an event called “Cease-fire on Health Care” at American University in Washington, where he called for “100 percent coverage,” and a system that involves a “transfer of finances” to help low-income people afford medical insurance.
“I know I risk sounding not quite as right-wing as I should to fit the billing,” Gingrich said at the event sponsored by Pfizer Inc., a drug company and paying member of Gingrich’s Center for Health Transformation.
A year before his ad with Pelosi, Gingrich teamed with Kerry for a debate on carbon-reduction methods in which Gingrich said, “My message is that the evidence is sufficient that we should move towards the most effective possible steps to reduce carbon loading of the atmosphere.”
And in 2009, Gingrich appeared with Obama and the Reverend Al Sharpton at the White House to promote changes in education policy, which followed with a Philadelphia appearance on the same issue with Sharpton and Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
“There’s no doubt Gingrich has got more of a track record of policy sins in the minds of conservatives than the other candidates” for the Republican nomination, said Greg Mueller, a party strategist who served as a senior aide on Steve Forbes’s 2000 presidential campaign. If his rivals decide to try to exploit them, he added, “those could be a liability.”