Democratic orthodoxy was rigidly enforced. Chairmen who strayed from the script got dumped. Junior members monitored the actions of their leaders, and moved against them in the caucus.
The House Rules Committee chairman, Joe Moakley of Massachusetts, captured the Democratic attitude toward their colleagues across the aisle: “We’ve got the votes. Screw you.”
Says Ornstein: “You had a majority governing that was arrogant, complacent, condescending, and casually corrupt.”
Enter Newt. Stage right.
NEWT WRITES A SCRIPT
Gingrich was 35 when he arrived in Congress in 1978. He was brilliant, glib, audacious.
To Democrats, as then-Majority Leader Jim Wright of Texas wrote in his diary, Gingrich was “a shrill and shameless little demagogue.”
Gingrich may well have agreed. “One of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty,” he said. “We encourage you to be neat, obedient and loyal and faithful and all those Boy Scout words, which would be great around a campfire but are lousy in politics.”
His words rang true to a core group of younger Republicans—they called themselves the Conservative Opportunity Society—who felt, as Rep. Robert Walker of Pennsylvania put it, “increasingly frustrated” with a “Republican leadership that seemed to be more accommodationist.”
Gingrich set out to be nasty. Boy, he was good at it. He secured his place in history as the visionary leader who helped his party seize control of the House in 1994, ending 40 years in the minority. But his congressional legacy also included three ruined speakerships, a government shutdown, a disastrous presidential impeachment, the public disgrace of respected leaders from both parties, and a deep poisoning of the atmosphere in Congress.
“The pragmatism, the practical situation is that you’ve got to get votes from the other side to make anything go,” said former Rep. Bob Michel of Illinois, the man whom Gingrich succeeded as the GOP leader in the House. “Well, Newt, let’s face it. His personality wasn’t exactly that type.”
Air conditioning transformed the South. A transformed South sent Gingrich to Congress. And with Gingrich came, Polsby noted, the current “era of ill feelings.”
THE ERA OF ILL FEELINGS
Those old cronies, Wilbur Mills and John Byrnes, would not recognize today’s faster, meaner Congress. House and Senate members no longer dally in the cloakroom or on the floor, trading stories and pork-barrel projects. They are too busy tweeting their disciples, or raising money for the next campaign.
And not just their own. Congressional candidates, who used to mount distinctive, personalized crusades for office, increasingly find themselves as cogs in national, parliamentary-style elections. The lucky ones draw high ratings from the national super PACS and are rewarded with a deluge of cash. In time, as they find favor with donors and lobbyists, they raise money for colleagues through their own fundraising committees.
Polarization has raised the stakes. The House has seen three “wave” elections in the past decade alone—in 2006, 2008, and 2010. Although most politics is still local, and redistricting or longtime service has insulated many members from getting tossed themselves, a shift in party control can drastically affect their influence and the success of their agenda.
The Gingrich revolution of 1994 “ushered in an era where, in almost any election, the majority can change,” Ornstein says. “So the stakes are higher. Before, the game was played between the 40-yard lines; now it is played from goalpost to goalpost. And so the mindset shifts.” Adds his sidekick Mann: “The pressure is enormous to stick with the herd, because so much of Congress today is about strategic, partisan, team play.”
Of course, there is no “I” in “team.” Today’s lawmakers put their individualism on hold when they enter Congress, and they often take orders from legislative leaders and their party’s powerful constituencies. None dares displease the spectators in the press box or the bleachers. A swift scourging, on talk radio or cable television, awaits those who deviate from the party line or compromise on issues. The threat of a primary challenge, funded and fueled from the ideological edges, keeps members in line.
“One of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.” —Newt Gingrich, 1978
Sturdy Republicans such as former Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah and former Rep. Michael Castle of Delaware and Democrats such as Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who once graced his party’s national ticket, have been humiliated in a party primary or caucus in recent years. Lieberman survived as an
independent, but Bennett and Castle didn’t, and their defeats haunt the Capitol like Marley’s ghost.