Steve Chapman has partly anticipated my argument when he describes Newt Gingrich as a “conservative, sort of.” Chapman is astonished that “conservative” Republicans have turned to Newt “in their hour of need.” This “onetime house speaker is a consistent conservative like I’m a duckbill platypus. In a contest with Romney for the most zigzags, Gingrich can more than hold his own.” Gingrich has taken and abandoned positions the way some people change underwear.

He was vocally in favor of added social programs and played down rapid increase of the national debt during the Bush presidency. Back then Gingrich was helping himself to a million and a half dollars in Freddie Mac handouts as a “history consultant,” later he exploded against his federal benefactors when the Dems took over the presidency. As Chapman shows, Gingrich has been running back and forth on the Libyan intervention, depending on how he could use this issue against Obama. Then in between attacks on the Democrats for deficit spending, Gingrich went after Paul Ryan’s “heartless” plan to lower government costs over a number of years. Newt may forget what he proclaims from one day to the next, but he does have a way of coming back to spilled milk. His call for amnestying long-resident illegals may contradict other impressions he’s conveyed, but it is consistent with what he said at some point in the past, if one looks back far enough.

When I heard Gingrich as an “innovative” Republican Congressman at Rockford College (in Illinois) in 1981, he was high on two things, the futurologist Alvin Toffler and giving computers to minorities in order to bring them up to speed. That was the technocratic phase in Gingrich’s checkered career, even before he began comparing himself to Lincoln and Churchill and even before he described himself as the great conservative hope. In the British Sunday Telegraph, English historian Timothy Stanley outlines what may be the guiding principles in Gingrich’s political career. Unlike traditional small-government American conservatives, Gingrich adores state-planning. His expression of admiration for FDR and the New Deal is not a stray opinion. It is fully consistent with Gingrich’s view that government must plan for us, while applying the latest technology to generate prosperity and spread democratic values. Gingrich is being entirely himself when he tries to nationalize all social issues. From combatting racial prejudice to fighting abortion, Gingrich wants the federal government to act decisively. Jonah Goldberg noted Gingrich’s eagerness to get the government (any level of government!) to employ inner city youth as cleaners of public toilets. It is one more statement of Gingrich’s “liberal belief” that “politics can change culture.” Unlike his opponent Ron Paul, Gingrich does not have the time of day for shared powers between the federal and state governments. That is, unless there is an opportunity to get states with Republican administrations to stop Obamacare.

Another concern of Gingrich’s has been to win support for his party from minorities that typically vote Democratic. This has led Gingrich into cosponsoring the Martin Luther King national holiday, calling for sanctions against apartheid South Africa, and trying to remove Confederate flags from public view in the state of Georgia, where he held a congressional seat. The former Congressman has also been an effusive supporter of the nationalist parties in Israel and an immigration expansionist, particularly when appealing to Hispanic votes. One suspects that all these stands were at least partly motivated by Gingrich’s desire to create for the GOP a bigger electoral tent. But these maneuvers have yielded meager results. Stanley notes that even if some find these positions to be “admirable,” they do not add up to being a “conservative.”

Unfortunately the word “conservative” has now been emptied of any meaning, except for getting Republicans elected. For the media and many voters, Republican and conservative are synonymous, and therefore if Gingrich beats up on Obama while brandishing the terms “Republican” and “conservative,” he must be what he says he is. Ironically, two signature Gingrich positions, technocratic government and a liberal international interventionist foreign policy, were leftwing positions when I was a kid. Back then it was not the libertarians but the right wing of the Republican Party that sounded like Ron Paul, someone who is now characterized by FOX News as a “kook.”

Not the would-be FDR Gingrich, but the Texas Congressman, sounds “conservative” in the traditional American sense. And I offer this judgment as a thirty-year historian of the American conservative movement. To whatever extent Gingrich is not being merely a self-exhibitionist, Chapman is correct that he is not a person of the Right. But he is appealing to many Republicans who see his candidacy as the second coming. Either these voters are deluded or they are backing a demagogue whom they think can get their party back into the White House. I doubt he’ll accomplish that job.