Midway through his breakfast panel at the National Press Club yesterday, Newt Gingrich said, by way of aside, "I risk sounding not quite as right-wing as I should to fit the billing."
Now, where would he get that idea? Maybe it was because he, architect of the 1994 Republican Revolution, was sitting down with the right's bete noire, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Possibly it was because they were agreeing on health care proposals. And it almost certainly had something to do with Gingrich saying things like "Senator Clinton is exactly right" and "I think everything she just said I agree with" and "Hillary is so correct in the direction she laid out."
In a town where the lion does not frequently lie with the lamb and swords are rarely used as plowshares, it was quite a sight to view the counterculture McGovernik making common cause with the leader of the vast right-wing conspiracy.
"We may be at the end of a 40-year cycle of bitterness," Gingrich said. "I've spent enough of my life fighting. It would be nice to spend some time constructing, and I think that there's a feel in the country that's very similar."
The budding friendship between Hillary and Newt -- yesterday's meeting was their second such joint appearance -- offers some political rehab for both. Clinton, pariah of the right, wants to show moderation as she prepares for a likely presidential run. Gingrich, pariah of the left, wants to show moderation to earn status as an elder statesman.
But whatever the self interest, yesterday's "Ceasefire" session, sponsored by Pfizer, coordinated by American University and moderated by former senator John Breaux (D-La.), was hopeful. If there is agreement between Clinton, who led the Democrats' doomed health care initiative in 1993, and Gingrich, who used the debacle to gain GOP control of Congress, then there may be relief yet for the 40 million uninsured Americans.
"As some of you may remember, I was a little bit involved in health care about 12 years ago," Clinton said, provoking chuckles from the former House speaker. "I still have the scars to prove it." Years later, Hillary now acknowledges the private sector's preeminence in health care reform; Newt endorses some federal mandates. Both praise preventive care and better patient management.
Their partnership is ostensibly about health care, but both gave hints of something deeper. She mentioned businesses that "Newt and I have talked with." He let slip that national security is "something Senator Clinton and I also work on." Breaux called their discussion "civil," but the pair couldn't have been more cuddly if they had been sharing an ice cream soda.
Clinton sent the first valentine. She said appearing with Gingrich was "a great thing to do" despite the critical calls she got. "Underneath Newt's great political skills is a policy wonk," Clinton gushed, alternating between respectful references to "the speaker" and familiar references to "Newt and I."
Gingrich returned the affection, calling his old foe "Hillary." He said that "to a greater extent than we would have guessed," the former speaker and the former first lady have discovered that "we have the same instinct."
Clinton, asked about electronic medical records, deferred, again, to her friend. "Newt has a very dramatic way of saying this," she said, "which is 'Paper kills.' " Gingrich sent the praise right back at her, hailing Clinton's legislation on medical records as a "major breakthrough" in Congress. "This is absolutely the case that Hillary is making," he said.
There were limits to the togetherness. When Clinton argued that "the great mushy middle of both parties" can agree on health care policy, Gingrich replied: "I'm not quite sure I'm ready to join the mushy middle."
Still, the two got along so famously that Breaux soon found himself irrelevant. Gingrich brushed off a Breaux question so he could return to Clinton's point. "I just want to build on this," he said. Clinton blew past a Breaux question with an "Excuse me, John" so she could echo Gingrich.
"Go right ahead," said the defeated moderator.
Gingrich, out of elected office, was free to depart from his anti-government roots. With Clinton nodding in support, he came out in favor of mandatory daily physical education, healthful food in schools and a "transfer of finances" from rich to poor. Some of this," Gingrich said after a long list of concessions to the left, "may surprise you."
Clinton had surprises, too. She nodded in support of Gingrich's proposal to "voucherize Medicaid" and agreed with his statement that "welfare reform has really worked." She granted that "there is enough money in the system right now to cover the uninsured" and she said that piecemeal reform was the best route.
"Part of what I think Newt and I are doing, and it's a little bit of a shock, or a Rorschach if you will, we are trying to get people to really think differently, because we have come to some of the same conclusions on independent paths," the senator said.
To nobody's surprise, the former speaker concurred. "I think Senator Clinton is exactly right," he said.