The idea of ideas: Newt Gingrich pitches ‘brain science’ on the trail

In that strange way he has of lecturing potential voters rather than appealing to them, Newt Gingrich came to the University of Iowa last week to talk about "brain science." He appeared in a medical school auditorium to tell his listeners about a "very big idea" no other leader is "willing to tackle." Warming to the subject, he predicted "a dramatic explosion of new science" that would arise from "a public-private research initiative to map the brain and maximize our understanding of how it works."

In order to set off this explosion, Gingrich explained, we'll need to nurture "50 to 70 Steve Jobses in biology." And those several score of news Jobses will produce, well, new jobs--- "hundreds of thousands of new jobs," thanks to the discovery of new treatments for Alzheimer's, which we would tackle once we'd figured out the brain. This was, therefore, a conservative proposal.

Newt Gingrich told all of this to a packed room of 300 medical students, older caucus-goers, college Republicans, and random undergraduates in the city where I live and work. Before he'd outlined his full brain-research agenda, though, he was ambushed by protesters. And as is the case with many pre-caucus political events in Iowa, the candidate's presence became in that moment merely incidental--a way for the city to talk, or--as the case may be, scream--at itself.

"Mr. Gingrich," a woman seated in the middle of the room shouted just as Gingrich began, "we are here to protest your speech today."

"Mr. Gingrich," shouted the rest of her crowd, embedded throughout the room, "we are here to protest your speech today"—in the repeated, amplified chorus of dissent popularized in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

It was the kind of thing you think will pass after a few moments, after the opposition has its rowdy say, but it did not pass. A woman in square glasses read from a long prepared speech and waited, after each line, for others to repeat after her.

"Why don't you shut up, all of you!" someone said, after the protesters had covered poverty and welfare reform, but before they'd gotten to lobbying and anti-drug laws.

After a few more minutes of this, a grey-haired man in a checkered sweater turned around, snatched the speech from the woman, crumpled it into a ball, and threw it on the ground. She pulled another copy of the speech out of her back pocket and continued, hardly missing a beat. The man tore that one, too, out of her hands, crumpled it into a ball, and threw it.

"Nor can we forget the fact that your unfair characterization of the poor . . . " continued the protesters.

"You can't even remember it without reading it?" asked a Gingrich supporter.

"I came to hear Mr. Gingrich speak, not you!" someone offered.

I had come neither to hear Mr. Gingrich nor to hear the protesters. I had turned up for this appearance by the GOP race's latest—and now already fading—frontrunner, because the invitation came from something called "UI Students for Gingrich," and the very existence of something called "UI Students for Gingrich" struck me as improbable. But the vision of liberal Iowans reacting with outrage to what was, essentially, a speech about investing federal money in medical research, provided its own curious narrative. The protesters did not want to talk about the future. They wanted to talk about the past--specifically, the mid-90's, when many of them would have been 2,3, or 4 years old.

To judge from the grim testimony contained in the speech they had distributed among themselves just a couple of hours prior, the 90's involved a "callous disregard for the poor," proposals to strip unwed mothers of welfare benefits, and attempts to push down the minimum wage. "We cannot forget," was their refrain--as in "we cannot forget your continued vilification of poor people."

This is not the version of history you will get from Natalie Ginty, the head of the University of Iowa's college Republicans, and a dual major in biochemistry and math. Ginty is 21; she was 4 years old when Gingrich helped commandeer the first GOP majority in Congres in four decades via the Contract With America. Ginty characterizes the 90's as "a time of creating 11 million jobs, of balancing the budget." She credits Gingrich with helping to create "a stable economic environment" and with paying down the national debt.

In this vision, Newt Gingrich is the exemplar of a superlatively effective Republican party--the leader of a tribe neither hamstrung by Democrats nor demotivated by do-nothing libertarians. "I don't believe government should have no role in our lives," Ginty said. Gingrich has "a lot of ideas," and that's part of why she will caucus for him.

Few seemed particularly interested, during the brief question-and-answer period following Gingrich's speech, in engaging with concepts such as government-directed brain maps. ("It seems like you have a Ph.D. in cheating on your wives," another Gingrich detractor in the crowd said.)

For the most part, Gingrich's audience was more than willing to recast the historical as neatly ideological. They did not particularly need Gingrich's enumerated ideas, his four-point plan for a new Apollo Project. They needed, perhaps, the idea of ideas.

"My roommate texted me after the speech," Ginty reported. "She said, Wow, Natalie, Newt Gingrich inspires me."

Kerry Howley is a visiting writer at the University of Iowa. This story is part a series of primary-state dispatches from outside the campaign bubble.