Newt Gingrich has promised to challenge President Barack Obama to a series of seven three-hour debates in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas if he receives the Republican nomination. Monday night in front of a packed house at the College of Charleston's historic Sottile Theatre, the former House speaker gave the audience a taste of his rhetoric, calling for the drastic overhaul of governmental agencies, a private-sector model for government spending, and a heaping helping of unabashed American exceptionalism.
The evening was hosted by U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, Charleston's freshman congressman, as a part of his First in the South series of presidential forums. Scott has drawn admiration in Tea Party circles, and while Gingrich made many indirect overtures to the Constitutionalist-libertarian right wing, he also spoke of an old-school party takeover, saying he hoped Republicans would win 20 to 30 House seats and the maximum in the Senate in order to turn the tide on Obama-era legislation like Dodd-Frank and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
"The recovery will begin when people realize Obama and Harry Reid are gone," Gingrich said to boisterous applause.
Gingrich, who is often credited as the leader of 1994's so-called Republican Revolution and architect of the conservative Contract with America, professed no animosity toward his opponents in the bid for the GOP nomination. He said any of his current opponents could end up in administrative positions under his presidency. "We have no opponents except Barack Obama," he said. Toward the end of the evening, when asked who he would choose as a running mate, he turned to Scott and said, "You're certainly on the short list."
Early on, Gingrich scored points with South Carolina conservatives. As president, he said he would defund the National Labor Relations Board, which has accused Boeing of retaliating against union members in Washington state by locating its newest Dreamliner plant in right-to-work South Carolina. He reiterated his call from a previous Charleston appearance in July to increase offshore natural-gas drilling, saying the resulting tax revenues could be used in part to fund a modernization of the Port of Charleston (presumably a harbor deepening, although he did not specify).
And he praised South Carolina's recent adoption of an Arizona-style immigration law that requires proof of legal U.S. residency from anyone who is arrested or pulled over by police. The Department of Justice has sued the state over the law, which some say can lead to racial profiling and harassment. "Here's a simple way to pin it: President Obama sided with Mexico. I will side with South Carolina," he said.
Gingrich's delivery was confident and calm as he stood stage-center, sans lectern, and spoke seemingly off the cuff. A recurring talking point was the application of business values and practices to government agencies. When asked how he would make health care affordable, Gingrich first said he would work on litigation reform to cut down on lawsuits against medical practitioners. Then he said he would push for the implementation of Lean Six Sigma, a stringent form of an error-minimization and management protocol that has been used by companies including Motorola and General Electric, to cut costs in Medicare and Medicaid.
Turning his attention to the Department of Education, he said he would shrink the Department of Education and push for something akin to school choice in primary and secondary education. "Every liberal I know loves Pell grants. They just hate them before they get to college," he said.
Gingrich closed out the evening with a short treatise on American exceptionalism.
"We are the wealthiest, most extraordinary society in the history of the human race," he said. "At this very moment, we are the largest economy by a large scale. We are capable of pulling away from China as decisively as in the 1990s we pulled away from Japan. We have the most powerful military in the history of the world. But we have to come to grips with the decision about who we are."
The questions had been suggested by the crowd beforehand and were presented by Rep. Scott. Notably absent were questions about Gingrich's personal life — a marked contrast to the laser-sharp scrutiny in recent weeks of Herman Cain's alleged affairs.
Also notably absent was any sort of disruption from the Occupy Charleston protest group. Members had planned earlier in the day to show up at the event, and a university official opened the evening with a warning: "We ask for your respect and civility during this event. Audience disruptions will not be permitted during the program. Further, event security will remove anyone from the theater that causes a disruption."
Occupiers did make an appearance earlier in the afternoon at a Gingrich campaign fundraiser near the Battery, with about a dozen picketers shouting slogans in the pouring rain outside a downtown house: "Rain or shine, Newt is grime," "Give Newt the boot," and "Greed is the root of all evil," among others. Jessica Dugan, a member of Occupy Charleston, says the group had planned to do a "mic check" at the Sottile Theatre similar to the one they performed during Michele Bachmann's foreign policy speech on the USS Yorktown on Nov. 10, but too many of the occupiers were turned away at the last minute as the theater reached capacity.
"We wanted to make sure it was powerful and it was taken seriously," Dugan said. "It was really important that if we were going to stand up and make a presence that we have enough people there."
A Nov. 22 Gallup poll showed Gingrich garnering more positive views from Republicans than any of his opponents. Herman Cain came in second place, followed by Mitt Romney.