NBC: 'Flamethrower' Gingrich 'Has a Tendency to Dive Into the Currents of Extremism'

After accusing presidential candidate Newt Gingrich of racism during an interview on Sunday's Meet the Press, NBC host David Gregory later posed this question to the show's political panel: "Do you think he [Gingrich] dialed back the reputation as...a flamethrower?...I mean, talking about Obama and anti-colonial views, about anti-Americanism."

The mostly liberal panelists used the opportunity to bash Gingrich and the Republican 2012 field in general. Time magazine political analyst Mark Halperin remarked that "the animating force in the Republican Party today is be in Barack Obama's face, be aggressive, be out to destroy his presidency."

In his interview with Gingrich, Gregory accused the former House Speaker of using "coded racially-tinged language" when criticizing the expansion of government welfare programs, such as food stamps, under the Obama administration. In the panel discussion, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne proclaimed: "...you asked him if this comment on food stamps is racially tinged....And he doubles down and says, 'Well, do we want the U.S. to become like Detroit,' aka Motown, you know? And so Newt's always unplugged."

Turning to The New York Times magazine political writer Matt Bai, Gregory declared: "This issue of Obama's values, are they in sync with what Americans want, how Americans define themselves, and whether Obama loves America? I didn't hear the former Speaker dial back a lot of his views that Obama's still outside the mainstream." Bai praised Gregory for insinuating Gingrich had racial motivations: "No, and I thought your questions on that were really fair....he has a tendency to dive into the currents of extremism very quickly, I think, and often to his detriment, when he feels there's a, there's an advantage to be gained."

Of Gingrich, Bai later concluded: "...this thing he keeps coming back to, playing to the anti-Americanism strain, going at Obama as not perhaps a real American, this is a dark current in American politics. This is a – this is not an ennobling current in American politics. And I don't think he can resist it, and I don't think it bodes well either for his campaign, if he goes there, or for the, or for the tenor that the country's about to experience."

Beyond Gingrich, the panel largely dismissed the rest of the GOP presidential hopefuls. At one point, Dionne commented: "The whole Republican presidential contest is about promoting books, promoting products, promoting TV shows and promoting Fox News." He later argued that "...one of the problems that Republicans have is that this primary electorate, had – the one that gave us Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell – is so conservative compared to primary electorates in the past, that all these candidates really have to reshape themselves in order to appeal to this and it makes them all look smaller."

Of Obama's chances for reelection, Bai proclaimed: "...here's the underpinning for President Obama that I think makes them hopeful and makes Republicans a little wary, which is this likability factor that has been very constant....people wish this president well. They still have a good regard, a good feeling for him. That is a tremendous asset for a president going in, especially at difficult times, going up for re-election." Halperin followed up by insisting: "Not one of these Republican candidates today is a strong enough political athlete to beat Barack Obama. Not one of them."

The half-hour long panel discussion did feature one conservative voice, Wall Street Journal columnist and former Reagan speech-writer Peggy Noonan. However, she was only given one minute and thirty-five seconds of air time.


Here is a transcript of portions of the May 15 discussion:

11:01AM ET

DAVID GREGORY: We are back. Big week in politics, and we're joined by our roundtable to talk about it: columnist for The Washington Post, E.J. Dionne; columnist for The Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan; White House correspondent for The New York Times, Helene Cooper; senior political analyst for Time magazine, Mark Halperin; and chief political writer for The New York Times Magazine, Matt Bai.

Welcome to everybody. Well, we've just heard the first of our 'Meet the Candidates' series, Mark Halperin, with Newt Gingrich, now a candidate. What did we learn?

MARK HALPERIN: He knows what he has to do to win. And amongst it, he referred to it quite self-consciously in response to your questions, he has to not be an analyst, he has to not be a, a gadfly, as he said.

GREGORY: Hm.

HALPERIN: He's got to be a, a leader, a political leader and a politician, not talk like a speaker of the House, not talk like a Fox News analyst, talk like a potential president. I think in, in this whole field, he's one of the underrated candidates in terms of his chances, and I think he showed today-

GREGORY: But do you think he did that?

HALPERIN: -his strength.

GREGORY: Do you think he dialed back the reputation as, I mean, not just an analyst, but a flamethrower? I mean, talking about Obama and anti-colonial views, about anti-Americanism; talking about the, the Left as the, you know, that has to be saved, to – akin to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. I mean, that's, that's language.

HALPERIN: The, the animating force in the Republican Party today is be in Barack Obama's face, be aggressive, be out to destroy his presidency. Newt Gingrich has a complicated problem. He needs to inhabit that space, which he naturally does; at the same time, he does need to dial back, as he said. Whenever you asked him a tough question today, he smiled and he tried to stay calm and not be a flamethrower, and I think that's what he's going to try to do the rest of the way.

GREGORY: E.J., you've covered him for a lot of years. Is he too much a symbol of the past, or does he deserve a second act?

E.J. DIONNE: Well, he is a symbol of the past. But, you know, Newt has always wanted to run for president, so I'm actually glad he's doing it. And he seems to be trying to cast himself as a good-natured flamethrower, and he was very good at kind of fending off those questions. But he can never resist going a few steps over the top. Right during your interview, you asked him if this comment on food stamps is racially tinged.

GREGORY: Yeah.

DIONNE: And he doubles down and says, 'Well, do we want the U.S. to become like Detroit,' aka Motown, you know? And so Newt's always unplugged. But you've got the most unsettled Republican field, I think, since 1940, when Wendell Willkie snuck in. You know, usually it's either a front-runner or a structured choice – Rockefeller against Goldwater, or Ford against Reagan. This time it's wide open, and you saw it on that poll where the numbers are just scattered all over the place.

GREGORY: Matt-

DIONNE: That gives anybody a chance.

GREGORY: Matt Bai, back a couple years ago you wrote a cover story for him for The New York Times Magazine. This is what it looked like. The question was, he was the anti-Obama.  And underneath that, he would answer no. And yet this issue of Obama's values, are they in sync with what Americans want, how Americans define themselves, and whether Obama loves America? I didn't hear the former Speaker dial back a lot of his views that Obama's still outside the mainstream.

MATT BAI: No, and I thought your questions on that were really fair, David.  I mean, all politicians – and we know this, covering them – are contradictions. All humans are contradictions. This human, this politician is especially contradictory. And one of the big contradictions you see when you spend time with Speaker Gingrich, if you've looked at him over the last couple years, is he is a very thoughtful, history-minded individual. He can, he can expound very thoughtfully and carefully on the currents of history. And at the same time, I think, like his old nemesis President Clinton, in some ways, he really wants to be liked, and he has a tendency to dive into the currents of extremism very quickly, I think, and often to his detriment, when he feels there's a, there's an advantage to be gained.

....

GREGORY: Let's talk about Mike Huckabee, his announcement last night on Fox News. He, he drew it out till the very end, as an entertainer, and then this is what he said.

MIKE HUCKABEE:  The past few weeks, the external signs and signals and answers to many of the obstacles point strongly toward running. And when I'm with people encouraging me to run, it's easy to feel the strength of their partnership and commitment to help me to the finish line.  But only when I was alone, in quiet and reflective moments, did I have, not only clarity, but an inexplicable inner peace, a peace that exceeds human understanding. All the factors say, 'Go!' But my heart says, 'No.' And that's the decision that I've made. And in it, I finally found some resolution.

GREGORY: So a lot of flash in that announcement that he's not doing anything. So who occupies that space in the field, E.J.?

DIONNE: Well, you know, I think Mike Huckabee occupies two bits of space. First of all, I think he is one of the most likable people in national politics. If you spent time with him in the last campaign, he's just a very warm, easygoing guy. There's a likability space that I think people underestimate. You know, Tim Pawlenty, I think, could occupy that kind of space, except he's become a really much more hard-line figure in order to get the conservative vote.    

....

GREGORY: And of course, then the surprising thing, right after he's done announcing at the end of the show – he interviews Mario Lopez during the show, and then right after he says 'I'm not running,' then you see this video pop up from the Donald.

DONALD TRUMP:  I think you'd be a terrific president. But a lot of people are very happy that he will not be running, especially other candidates. So, Mike, enjoy the show. Your ratings are terrific. You're making a lot of money. You're building a beautiful house in Florida. Good luck.

GREGORY: Helene, what does that mean? What just happened there? What happened?

HELENE COOPER: I think you were seeing – the second that Mike Huckabee – I found out that he wasn't running, not because I was sitting in front of the TV because it was a Saturday night, but my BlackBerry exploded with e-mails and statements from every other candidate running to try to scoop up his voters. So I think that's what you just saw here. But I also think Donald Trump is hilarious. Don't you want this guy to stick around?

[LAUGHTER]

DIONNE: The whole Republican presidential contest is about promoting books-

GREGORY:  Yeah.

DIONNE: -promoting products, promoting TV shows and promoting Fox News.

GREGORY: Alright.

DIONNE: It's an extraordinary moment.

....
    
DIONNE: And I think one of the problems that Republicans have is that this primary electorate, had – the one that gave us Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell, is so conservative compared to primary electorates in the past, that all these candidates really have to reshape themselves in order to appeal to this and it makes them all look smaller.

....

BAI: But here's the thing, here's the underpinning for President Obama that I think makes them hopeful and makes Republicans a little wary, which is this likability factor that has been very constant, and even in very difficult economic conditions, has remained pretty resilient. Not everybody likes his policies, not everybody thinks he's, he's doing a good job on the economy all the time, or on other issues. But people wish this president well. They still have a good regard, a good feeling for him. That is a tremendous asset for a president going in, especially at difficult times, going up for re-election.

GREGORY: And yet, Mark Halperin, we know if the unemployment rate is above 7.4 percent, going back to the '40s, it's very difficult to get re-elected president or impossible.

HALPERIN: Historically, it would be, but I would say today, if you talk to most Republicans, they agree that if they're not making the case for why they'd be better then he can win with a high unemployment rate, presuming that things don't get worse than they've been. Not one of these Republican candidates today is a strong enough political athlete to beat Barack Obama. Not one of them. If one of them proves to be strong, it's going to be a close race. There are just too many red states out there that Obama's not going to be able to compete in.

GREGORY: Right.

....

GREGORY: We want to talk about our takeaways for the hour. Some of the news that Speaker Gingrich made here on the program, now that he is a candidate for high office, we've been obviously monitoring the conversation online. This is TweetDeck that shows you some of the, the major threads, open threads of trending conversation. A lot of reaction, as you can imagine, the issues as well as the President's – the former Speaker's personal life.

And this is something, Matt, that you tweeted as you were coming into the show. 'Newt Gingrich says in the MTP green room the campaign is about three things: economy, American identity, home security. The middle one seems ominous.' Is that something you got a lot of traction on, talking about online?

BAI: I'll tell you what seems ominous, David, is that huge TweetDeck with my tweet-

GREGORY: Yes, very huge, very scary.

BAI: -blown up in life-size. Yeah, look, I think this is the question I start out with about Speaker Gingrich, which is, you know, the last two, the economy, homeland security clear issues. He'll be very thoughtful about them, he'll be provocative. He may be the strongest authority in the field, in fact, if he really, you know, is clear and consistent. But this thing he keeps coming back to, playing to the anti-Americanism strain, going at Obama as not perhaps a real American, this is a dark current in American politics. This is a – this is not an ennobling current in American politics. And I don't think he can resist it, and I don't think it bodes well either for his campaign, if he goes there, or for the, or for the tenor that the country's about to experience.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC