The new Newt thing
Draft me! Draft me! Newt Gingrich has a big idea and thinks you'll like it so much he'll just have to run for president, says Fortune's Nina Easton.
(Fortune Magazine) -- Inside a modest hotel meeting room in Tempe, Ariz., a dozen health-care thinkers kill time with small talk as they await the unfaded celebrity aura that is Newt Gingrich.
Like scores of companies before and since, the one sponsoring this forum on health-care reform has paid a princely sum to hear Gingrich's ideas on transforming what is probably the most stubbornly archaic industry around, where 21st-century leaps in cancer treatment coexist with doctors still scribbling illegibly on prescription pads. The evening's events open with this private session, where only conference panelists and hosts are permitted access to the former House Speaker. His keynote address comes hours later, after dinner.
But right now Gingrich is running late. He has spent the afternoon out on the campaign trail, starring at a fundraiser for an Arizona Congressman doomed to become one of the GOP's surprise defeats in the upcoming November election. When Gingrich finally arrives, he is sweaty and distracted. And when he takes his seat, he makes clear that he wants his small audience to do the talking.
One by one, the speakers explain to Gingrich their ideas on the conference's theme: how to extend the reach of LeanSigma, a newfangled, trademarked system combining Lean and Six Sigma process-management techniques that is already in use at such hospitals as Johns Hopkins and Massachusetts General.
Just 15 minutes in, it's showtime, as Gingrich leaps to the whiteboard in the front of the room, blue felt-tip pen in hand, to dispense with the cherished management theory of the people paying him tonight.
"I don't mean to be argumentative," he says, as he scribbles a chart on the history of management reform, tucking dates alongside names like Motorola and Deming and Ohno, all the while peppering the group with questions. "But I'm dubious about externalized systems. It becomes a cult."
No one is insulted. On the contrary, everyone is enthralled by Gingrich and his well-informed romp through management history. ("There's this whole romantic side to him," Gingrich says enthusiastically about management guru W. Edwards Deming. "He wrote religious songs.") Newt Gingrich - adopted son of an Army man, history professor at West Georgia College - has always succeeded by exceeding expectations.
Few believed this puckish politician, who can sound like a cross between self-help guru Tony Robbins and futurist Alvin Toffler, could lead the Republican Party to overthrow entrenched Democrats in charge of the House of Representatives for 40 years. Fewer still believed he could resurrect his reputation after his ignoble fall from power four years later.
And this year, as he throws warm-up pitches for a 2008 presidential campaign, hoping that his big ideas, combined with his grass-roots popularity, will produce a "draft Newt" movement, even his most ardent loyalists doubt he can pull it off. "He's a better Moses, leading the party out of the wilderness, than he is a King David, running the show," says Frank Lavin, a veteran of Republican administrations who now serves as commerce undersecretary.
While Gingrich has plenty to say on national security and social issues, the core of his resurrection and unusual race for President are his ideas on health costs - a national migraine that has driven the likes of General Motors toward bankruptcy, put insurance out of reach for 46 million Americans, and now threatens to strangle the economy by ballooning entitlement costs. The problem is so severe that state governors - most recently California's Arnold Schwarzenegger - have given up on Washington and are promoting their own sweeping reform plans.
Gingrich got a headstart on the issue at the turn of the millennium, when he began building his credibility as the voice of free-market-style reform. He has preached his evolving message to business and health groups around the country. In Washington he has transformed his reputation from polarizing politico to business visionary who might strategize with Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt one day and Senator Hillary Clinton the next.
What Gingrich has to say is not so much a unified theory as a way of rearranging the way we look at things - a refusal to accept the cultural status quo. At the Tempe conference, Gingrich politely listens to such proposals as applying Toyota-style production-control techniques to the health system - and then slices through them with an alternative mantra of competition, deregulation, modernized information systems, and personal responsibility.
Leave the middleman out. Force doctors and hospitals, Medicare and Medicaid, to disclose pricing and compete with one another. Put all the latest information on databases so that American consumers can go online, plug in their personal health profile, and shop for the best prices on drugs and services.
In other words, in Gingrich's world consumer health care should look more like Travelocity.
At age 63, Newton Leroy Gingrich is still one of the most restless minds on the political landscape, embodying what education philosopher George Kneller described as the ability to "look afresh at what we normally take for granted." He has even reinvented afterlife for a fallen politician. Eight years after stepping down as House Speaker, Gingrich runs a for-profit think tank, the Center for Health Transformation, that promotes his ideas while ensuring a handsome living for the former public servant. He doesn't lobby on behalf of specific clients; aides say he doesn't want confusion about whose interests he is representing when he counsels, say, the Secretary of Defense or Senate leaders.
Instead, the center offers policy ideas to companies that want to get health-care costs off their backs but oppose government-imposed, universal-health-insurance plans as costly and burdensome. The center's roster of 75 clients is impressive, including insurers Blue Cross & Blue Shield and GE Healthcare, providers like the American Hospital Association, and employers like GM (Charts) and Ford (Charts). Clients pay fees ranging from $10,000 to $200,000 a year.
Along with lecture fees of $50,000 a speech, at the rate of about 60 per year, Mr. Speaker's new career is making him rich. Customers think he's worth it, providing a much-needed vision to an industry that is "30 times more complicated than defense," says Ron Wince, president of Guidon Performance Solutions, which sponsored the Tempe speech. Gingrich, he adds, also spreads innovative ideas in a business that is "incredibly bad at sharing best practices."
The other piece of Gingrich's life is pure politics. He stumps at the same grass-roots venues as officially declared contenders for president. In public opinion polls the former speaker regularly ranks in the top tier of Republican hopefuls and is routinely described by political analysts as the wild card in the 2008 race.