In 1995, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich banned proxy votes in committees. That meant no longer could powerful chairmen (for 40 years previous, all Democrats) cast votes for lawmakers who skipped out on the marking-up of legislation.
This is ironic because the reason Gingrich is the Republican presidential front-runner today is that several big-name Republicans essentially cast their proxy vote for him.
Gingrich would not be where he is today—ahead in Iowa, closing fast in New Hampshire, and untouchable in South Carolina—if other Republicans who skipped out on the race had shown up.
Imagine for a moment a debate stage that includes Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. Does anyone believe that Gingrich, after a summer of staff defections, Tiffany trifles, and Greek isle idleness, would stand a chance in a field of these GOP heavyweights? If you do, you’ve probably digitized all of Gingrich’s GOPAC cassette tapes and believed—as Gingrich did back then—that Republicans had a chance to win the House in 1990 and 1992 (the GOP finished with 167 and 176 seats, respectively).
Gingrich would have been obliterated by this field or, at minimum, outshone by contemporary political success (Newt last won a contested election in 1998), relevant public-policy accomplishments (Newt’s last big bill was the budget deal with President Clinton in 1997), and an attachment to the tea party-inspired grassroots realignment of the GOP.
But none of those marquee Republicans ran, leaving the field open for a Newt comeback. Gingrich, a student of long trends in commerce, politics, and history, saw the same opening Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton did in 1991—running for the White House while bigger Democrats (Mario Cuomo, Lloyd Bentsen, Al Gore, and Dick Gephardt) demurred.
Every election cycle is different and none is a perfect match. But this similarity to ’92 cannot be overlooked.
There is another comparison. Clinton saw his party needed a better regional and ideological match with the national. Gingrich had a similar insight, but about a different aspect of the race. Gingrich saw Mitt Romney was and would forever remain conspicuously misaligned with his party. Romney is Northeastern, ideologically flexible, linked to and familiar with Wall Street ways, supported by party establishmentarians, and has never had anything but a glancing relationship with the grass roots (tea party or otherwise) of his party. These central characteristics of Romney’s record, region, and persona are supposed to fit with a party that’s never been more Southern and Western, ideologically conservative, and viscerally hostile to Beltway or Wall Street know-it-alls? Gingrich saw the asymmetry.
The question is, what can Romney do about it? Calling Gingrich a “career politician” may have limited utility. If Gingrich answers that his “career” was defined in part by inspiring the first House GOP majority in 40 years, brass-knuckling Clinton to accept a balanced budget (at first Clinton wouldn’t even commit to the concept), passing welfare reform and middle-class and capital-gains tax cuts, what will Romney say about his “career” in politics. Health care? Probably not.
Then there is Gingrich the manager, the leader as speaker. The most ardent Gingrich loyalist would call his record “mixed.” The policy accomplishments were many; the political damage inflicted was real. The GOP brand lost ground every cycle Gingrich was in power (nine seats in ’96 and five in ’98) and even when George W. Bush tried to run from it in 2000 (two seats were lost). After the Contract With America and the shutdown showdown with Clinton, Gingrich’s reign was defined by the concentration of power in his office, a peripatetic lurching from one idea to the next until, deep into the summer of 1996, Republicans had to cut deals with Clinton just to survive (Clinton’s victory percentage in the House rose from 26.3 percent in ’95 to 53.2 percent in ’96, the highest mark of his presidency with a GOP House).
Yes, there was chaos. Gingrich was largely to blame. Allies who used to relish the sight of Gingrich lashing Democrats began to recoil at the sting of the whip when directed at them. It’s remarkable to think about it still. The team that stood with Gingrich in January 1995 was ready to sack him in the summer of 1997.
Yet under Gingrich, party unity was virtually unanimous, even on the big confrontations with Clinton. Gingrich never saw the defections Speaker John Boehner has this year tolerated or endured (59 on the continuing resolution in April, 95 on the debt-ceiling deal in August, 48 that sank the September continuing resolution). Gingrich’s House GOP party unity score in ’95 was 73 percent, higher than any party achieved from 1953 to 2010. Boehner would weep for this. And now Barbour, Thune, Daniels, Christie, and Ryan have made Gingrich a force—possibly an unstoppable one.
WATCH Gingrich reacts to Romney's ad promoting his long marriage and family life:
This article appears in the Dec. 7, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.