WASHINGTON — In the years since I first met him in 1974, I have learned that it's wise to take Newt Gingrich seriously. He has many character flaws, and his language is often exaggerated and imprudent.
But if there is any politician of the current generation who has earned the label "visionary," it is probably the Georgia Republican and former speaker of the House.
For that reason alone, it is regrettable that Gingrich has virtually decided to pass on the 2008 presidential race. He told me and other reporters last week, "The odds are very high that I won't run." He probably would not be the winner, but his presence in the field would raise the bar for everyone else, improve the content of the debates and change the dynamic of the race.
The simple fact that he is prepared to say plainly that, if they have a prayer of electing George Bush's successor, Republicans must offer "a clean break" from Bush's policies sets Gingrich apart. No one in the Republican field except the semi-eccentric Ron Paul has taken that position — and the debate has been weaker because of that silence.
Gingrich shies from running for good reason. His personal history and the scars he bears from leading the 1994 revolution that brought Republicans to power in Congress for a dozen years would make it hard for him to mobilize the money and support needed in an already crowded field.
Moreover, he is right in saying that when "10 guys are lined up like penguins," for TV debates in which answers must be compressed to 60-second sound bites, the "big ideas" he wants to promote would likely be lost.
So he is opting for American Solutions for Winning the Future, a policy and advocacy group equipped for the Internet age that will launch at the end of this month from the west front of the Capitol, where Gingrich staged his "Contract With America" signing at the start of the 1994 campaign.
This new effort, which is nominally nonpartisan, aims at developing fresh solutions to the public policy problems that challenge the nation, from health care to immigration to inner-city education.
Gingrich is brimming with ideas on all these subjects, but is realistic enough to suggest that it may take five years for public opinion — and other politicians — to be ready to embrace some of them.
That five-year estimate is significant. It would run to the end of the next presidential term. Gingrich has a low opinion of the ingenuity and independence shown so far by the GOP field, and he predicts that the battle for the nomination will be a long one. Even the Feb. 5 massing of primaries in big states is unlikely to produce a clear winner, he says, and the result may be "chaos" or a brokered nominating convention.
By contrast, he says, Hillary Rodham Clinton faces few obstacles in winning the Democratic nomination. And he leaves reporters with the feeling that he thinks that a Hillary Clinton presidency would provide fertile ground, just as Bill Clinton's did, for a Republican revival.
Gingrich told National Journal's Linda Douglass that in 2012, "I'd be the same age ... (that) Reagan was when he was elected in 1980."
At the news breakfast where I saw him, he was as pumped-up about his new venture as he had been when we first had coffee 33 years ago. Then he was a college professor, engaged in a losing House campaign, but blessed or cursed with grandiose ideas about how the Republicans might — after more than 30 years — become the majority in the Congress.
It took him 20 years after that to achieve his goal, so I have no reason to doubt that he'd spend another five years trying to put his now beleaguered party back on its feet. He works and travels at a frenetic pace, drawing fresh ideas from visits last week to a Michigan hospital, a Microsoft plant and a health care complex in Spokane.
If big ideas and big ambitions can bring Republicans back to life, Gingrich is ready to supply them. And I have learned not to underestimate him.
E-mail Broder at firstname.lastname@example.org.